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Two spotlights on Sondheim heat up the Berkshires to varying degrees

SHEFFIELD -- Julianne Boyd has had an amazing string of successes since she founded the Barrington Stage Company in 1995. Last year the theater held the world premiere of ''The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which went on to win two Tonys recently (and many thought should have won best musical). Sara Ramirez knocked everybody out in BSC's ''The Game" before she went on to win the Holy Grail in ''Monty Python's Spamalot."

Now you can add Stephen Sondheim's ''Follies," which launches the 11th season, to a list of Barrington productions that have been better than the Broadway revivals, productions that include ''Cabaret," ''The Diary of Anne Frank," and ''South Pacific."

Set in 1971, the year in which it was written, ''Follies" is a reunion of Ziegfeld-like showgirls at a theater that's about to be razed. The idea came from James Goldman, who wrote the book, which has always seemed a step or two down from the sophistication of Sondheim's music and lyrics. That's part of the reason why ''Follies in Concert" has been more popular with theater companies than the real thing. You just want to get from song to song as quickly as you can without bogging down in the stuff in between.

Book problems remain, but when you have the kind of talent onstage that Boyd has assembled and keep it moving as gracefully as she does, it's hard to get bogged down. The production is kind of a reunion within a reunion as Boyd has assembled a powerful roster of stars from past Barrington productions, all of whom mesh handsomely -- Jeff McCarthy (''Mack and Mabel"); Kim Crosby (''On the Twentieth Century"); Leslie Denniston (''A Little Night Music"); and Marni Nixon (''Cabaret"). Throw in Sheffield newcomer Donna McKechnie, the Tony-winning star of ''A Chorus Line" in 1976, and you have a collection of folks who easily outstrip the 2001 Broadway revival with Treat Williams and Judith Ivey.

Backed by a jazzy eight-piece orchestra, almost everyone onstage sells both the score and Sondheim's thoughts about the ravages of time -- on musical theater, on youthful idealism, on beauty, on relationships. Carlotta (McKechnie) defiantly sings ''I'm Still Here," but the four principals seem to have thrown in the towel. Phyllis (Denniston), wife of Ben (McCarthy), wonders ''Could I Leave You?" Sally (Crosby), in love with Ben since the '40s, worries that she's ''Losing My Mind." Ben and Buddy (Lara Teeter), married to Sally, just about do lose their minds.

Except for Teeter, whose choreography far outdistances his singing and acting talents, each member of the cast nails his or her big number. McKechnie doesn't match Elaine Stritch or Polly Bergen (the surprise star of the recent revival) in ''I'm Still Here," but her voice hasn't turned to gravel, as theirs have, so she puts her own forceful stamp on the number. Crosby's ''Losing My Mind" makes something beautiful and overpowering out of Sally's pathos. Denniston is a vamp-and-a-half as Phyllis. And don't put the elder stateswomen out to pasture. Diane Houghton's ''Broadway Baby" and Nixon's ''One More Kiss" are dazzling.

For all that talent, McCarthy all but steals the show. When last we saw him he was arresting people for doing what comes naturally in ''Urinetown: The Musical" on Broadway. McCarthy has all the fluidity of a great musical comedy star, while his rich baritone sounds as if he'd be equally at home on an opera stage. Wherever he is, he sings up a storm.

While ''Follies" is thundering in Sheffield, Sondheim is also purring in Stockbridge with the Berkshire Theatre Festival's lighter entertainment, ''Side by Side by Sondheim."

The wide-ranging ''Follies" score moves incrementally from nostalgia (''Beautiful Girls") to neurosis (''Losing My Mind"). A musical revue like ''Side by Side" covers even more ground, and this one goes from Sondheim's collaborations with other composers (''West Side Story" and ''Gypsy") to his kabuki-styled ''Pacific Overtures" in 1976.

Jessica Walter narrates the proceedings, describing Sondheim's thematic concerns while adding in biographical notes and assorted other musings. Michele Ragusa, Allison Briner, and Marcus Neville do the vocal honors to the accompaniment of Robert Hirschhorn's solo piano.

It's all very pleasant and un-taxing, which aren't really the primary virtues associated with Sondheim. There's also a bit of smarminess at play when the narration drops in some irrelevancies (''You Must Meet My Wife" not being what Bill Clinton said to Monica Lewinsky). The director, Gary M. English, allows too much mugging from Briner and from Neville, whose singing lapses too easily into the conversational.

Ragusa is the star of the show. She has the sweetest voice, the sincerest mannerisms, and the sexiest outfits. But she still needs seasoning. Her ''Losing My Mind" sounds more like an exercise than a heartfelt cry. Perhaps it's not fair to compare this version to Marin Mazzie's at the Pops, Crosby's at Barrington Stage, or Leigh Barrett's in ''Follies in Concert" two years ago, all of which tore at the soul. But it does sum up the sense that ''Side by Side by Sondheim" is the place you come for a pleasant night of theater, just not for a great one.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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