“Sondheim Tribute Revue” is custom-made by Theo Theatre

Fred Anzevino, the founder of the Theo Ubique Theatre (now just Theo Theatre), has long been one of the best directors in town when it comes to identifying young talent and then setting them up to do their best. I’ve been watching him do precisely that for years, but his production of the so-called Sondheim Tribute Revue is really Anzevino at his best.

A word about this show. For a limited time, the Sondheim estate has been granting permission to theaters to create their own customizable revue of the late, great one’s incomparable catalog. There are certain parameters: Sondheim had to have written both music and lyrics (so no “West Side Story” or “Gypsy”), no more than three songs can be from one show, no spoken material from any of the musicals is permitted and you can’t come out in full slasher-barber garb since no show-specific costumes are allowed. And as far as I can discern from looking at the contract, you can’t orchestrate beyond a piano.

But that still gives you 15 great musicals from “Saturday Night” to “Road Show” (a.k.a., for Chicagoans, “Bounce”). I cannot image a more fun assignment than picking which songs.

Up until now, audiences basically have been restricted to hearing the pre-determined selections present in “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which came out in 1976, thus missing some of the most productive years, or the better “Sondheim on Sondheim” from 2010, a show that intersperses interviews with the songwriter between his songs, but that’s not licensable (Cameron Mackintosh also produced a show called “Old Friends” in London in 2022). The great thing about this composer (well, one of the great things) is how well his songs work out of their original context, especially when placed in conversation with other Sondheim songs.

So Anzevino had a bevy of great choices, although he had to keep the relative youth of his cast in mind. He made some great selections, including “Unworthy of Your Love,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Could I Leave You?, “No One Has Ever Loved Me” and, my personal favorite, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.” Between all these songs, the cast (including pianist and musical director Carolyn Brady) talk about their own Sondheim journey. These small narratives are nothing pretentious, but they’re very charming and honest and I think will be appreciated by Sondheim devotees. All of the performances from Elya Bottiger, Max DeTogne (the most experienced singer), Ismael Garcia, Joe Giovannetti and Maliha Sayed are honest and warm and a kind of meet-Sondheim-where-you-are aesthetic prevails.

It’s all quite lovely and it made me think back to reviewing “Here We Are” last fall at The Shed in New York, a richly polished affair. I thought it was a wonderful experience and, even though the two productions could not be more different in style and ambition, I felt much the same about my trip to Howard Street the other night, seated at the bar (my favorite seat here), chatting with theatergoers, talking, hearing and loving Sondheim.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Sondheim Tribute Review” (3.5 stars)

When: through April 28

Where: Theo Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Tickets: $44-$98 at Dinner available separately.

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