Sparkling Sondheim

"Men are stupid, men are vain/Love's disgusting, love's insane/A humiliating business." This is hardly the typical love-song sentiment. But Stephen Sondheim is not a typical lyricist, and an evening of his persistent cynicism can be quite wearing. Fortunately, the creators of Love is in the Air have coated the bitterness of Sondheim's songs with enough comic relief to make for a delightful experience.

This production marks the fourth annual Sondheim cabaret to benefit AIDS patient care at New England Deaconess Hospital. Judging from the masterful performances and energy displayed in Love is in the Air, another splendid Harvard tradition has taken root.

Unlike most popular music, which functions best as dance music or as the soundtrack to a video, Sondheim's works reward close listening. The rhymes are breathtaking. Whereas most lyricists are content with two words, Sondheim often rhymes three, four or, in "Two Fairy Tales," 15 words. He also plays with consonance, matching pinch, punch, pauch, pouch and pension.

For a song which lasts only a few minutes, the sentiments Sondheim expresses through words and melody can be quite subtle. But with careful modulation and precise diction, the cabaret cast makes almost every song accessible. In many Harvard musicals the leads sing considerably better than the supporting cast. However, in Love is in the Air each vocalist does an impressive job, though Lynda Doctoroff stands out for her clear, powerful voice and considerable acting ability. And David Eggar, the pianist, both provides skillful accompaniment and shows his own talent during the piano solos of such songs as "Being Alive."

Director Jennifer Giering has pleasingly combined disparate elements of Sondheim's works. Solos are balanced by ensembles, slow pieces by quick ones. Some songs are utterly disheartening; in "The Miller's Son," Doctoroff earthily proclaims her intent to sample as many men as possible before she's "stuck with just one." But the gloom is immediately lifted by the hilarious "Buddy's Blues," in which Greg Schaffer complains, "you say I'm terrific, but your taste was always rotten."

Christine van Kipnis' choreography matches the mood and tempo of peppy songs like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," using synchronized movement to emphasize the lyrical harmony. And the bleakness of slower songs is not disturbed by unnecessary shuffling.

Giering's interpretations of individual songs are also skillful, with a few exceptions. One feels particularly gratified to see "I Remember" done in an appropriately mournful manner, in contrast to a previous year's downright cheerful version. And Giering demonstrates her ability to distinguish between Sondheim's sensibilities and his characters'--the word "fag" is restored to its place in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" after a previous year's cabaret had censored that song.

Occasionally the emotions of the singers clash with those of the songs. While Brad Rouse sings beautifully, his constant cheerfulness mutes the disturbing tale about a dying, guilt-ridden knight in "Two Fairy Tales." As a result, that story fails to contrast the appropriate flightiness of Cori Lynn Peterson's half of the song.

The greatest flaw in the show is a product of the format. Seeing Tim Krochuk, Rouse, and Giering recreate "Bobby & Jackie & Jack," a song they sang together in last month's magnificent production of Merrily We Roll Along, reminds us that each of these songs was written for a specific moment in a specific play. Removing a song from its surroundings must weaken it, especially in a piece as dependent on the situation as "Pretty Women" from Sweeny Todd. Perhaps spoken introductions would restore some of the lost context.

But in a year when two Sondheim musicals, Merrily and West Side Story, are being staged at Harvard, even the most devoted fan cannot complain. Sondheim fans can draw comfort from the knowledge that in both lean years and fat, the AIDS Coalition will be putting on polished performances of some of the cleverest music ever.

Love is in the Air Directed by Jennifer Giering In the Dunster House Dining Hall Through February 23rd