Credit: Brett Beiner

The Mercury Theater gives its new Venus Cabaret space a stellar launch with this engaging, imaginatively staged rendition of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s landmark 1970 concept musical. The cozy, nightclublike venue (carved out of the former Cullen’s Bar & Grill) brings out the best aspects of this revuelike collection of sketches and songs exploring the theme of marriage as partnership, for better and for worse.

The show’s focus is on Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor, and his friendships with five heterosexual couples, whose complicated, competitive, sometimes combative relationships seem to provide Robert with prima facie evidence as to why he should avoid taking the plunge, even as his emotional isolation grows increasingly unbearable. Furth’s script (originally penned as a suite of plays, and transformed into a musical theater libretto under the guidance of the original director, Harold Prince) feels remarkably contemporary, by turns hilariously satiric and emotionally pungent, in the capable hands of director L. Walter Stearns and his excellent 14-member ensemble.

With his broad, toothsome smile, David Sajewich is a wonderful Robert—always eager to please the people he’s keeping company with, yet always feeling like an outsider trying to crack the codes they use to communicate with each other. Sondheim’s intricate, pop-flavored score is well sung under the musical direction of Eugene Dizon, who also leads a piano-bass-woodwind trio; though I missed the driving energy that a drummer would have added, I greatly appreciated hearing Sondheim’s brilliant songs delivered without amplification, which enhances the intimate connection between actors and audience that is this production’s greatest strength.  v