When Side by Side by Sondheim: A Musical Entertainment was compiled for the stage, the idea was to put on an intimate cabaret-type show that was designed around two keyboards and a trio of voices on stools, plus a narrator. It has done quite well in that format, fitting Steven Sondheim’s mind-bending lyrics and superb melodies into spaces perhaps too small for a full-fledged Sondheim production.

But when Raleigh Little Theatre slated it for a four-performance fundraiser in its Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre, all thought of an “intimate performance” vanished. RLT guest director Brent Wilson, who has been singing and dancing in Raleigh theaters such as RLT for nearly three decades, looked at the show in an entirely different light. He imagined each song a scene unto itself, drawing on the characters that actually sing the songs.

While the performance is a selection of 32 different pieces, the concept works, and quite, well, dramatically. Wilson’s direction calls for more than 70 costume changes, mostly made onstage, a whole cast of on-stage dressers/propsters/actors who add immeasurably to the show, and a trio of voices that were handpicked by the director himself. For the female vocals, Wilson first invited Rose Martin, an RLT veteran since 1992 and a multiple winner of the coveted RLT Cantey Award. He also selected Martie Todd Sirois, who has been performing with RLT since the 1980s.

For the male vocals, Wilson selected himself — stating that he was the only one he knew who could put up with him that long. The two keyboards would be played by Julie Florin, well-known Raleigh musical director, and another Wilson, Brett, whose RLT credits as musical director include Divas, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and Spitfire Grill. His Narrator is Kathleen Rudolph, RLT’s associate education director and director of many of RLT’s shows for kids.

Side by Side is filled with songs from all the musicals for which Sondheim is known: Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy, Follies, and A Little Night Music. But it doesn’t stop there; also included are lyrics that Sondheim wrote with or for other people, most notably Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers, and Jule Styne. These tunes come from West Side Story, Evening Primrose, Anyone Can Whistle, and Pacific Overtures. Interestingly, the songs that are highlights of the show come as much from the latter group as from the former.

The first showstopper comes quickly in Act I as the trio gives us a jewel from Company, “Getting Married Today.” The central character is Amy, sung here by Martin, who is beginning to get cold feet very late in the game. She has been with her live-in lover for years, but the idea of commitment for life is driving her to complete distraction. She delivers a patter-song of “please, no’s” that are a complete hoot for the audience, and she sings them with such panache that this was the first song to receive spontaneous applause from this attentive crowd.

The play Company offers two more gems that allow our other singers to shine. Sirois looks at New York City as a City of Strangers as she sings “Another Hundred People.” Then Wilson sings a stunner of a song, “Marry Me a Little,” which invites the girl of his dreams to come and marry him, sort of.

The trio closes out Act I with a triple-play song of three girls who have been pursuing Company’s main character, Bobby; the three are not pleased with the man. “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” views the man’s pros and cons very effectively, but gets the point home easily with lines like “turning off a person is the act of a man who likes to pull the hooks out of fish.”

Act II opens with a bang as all three combine for “Everybody Says Don’t,” from the 1965 musical, Anyone Can Whistle. In fact, Act II is filled with highlights more often done together than singly. Martin and Wilson revive a “lost” song from Do I Hear a Waltz? In “We’re Gonna Be Alright,” a couple who could be headed for the rocks rationalizes that, compared to all their friends, they are a lot better off. Martin then changes partners, plays, and ages as she joins Sirois for “If Mama Was Married,” from Gypsy. But the two later do themselves one better as they combine for a duo from 1959’s West Side Story, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” where both handle the severity, honesty, and difficulty of the music with panache.

Wilson pulls a rabbit out of a hat with a heavy-duty, dual role of lead and director of this truly entertaining revue. His choice of three supremely dynamic voices and a stage full of helping hands has turned an intimate cabaret into a fully-staged songfest, that has a long list of highlight after highlight and turns the usually quiet RLT amphitheatre into a site for a foot-stompin’ hard-laughing good time. Bring a lawn chair, bring a cooler, or take full advantage of RLT’s fully stocked concession stand, and give yourself a real treat by steeping yourself in some truly well-handled Sondheim classics of the musical stage. Side by Side by Sondheim runs in the Stephenson Amphitheatre for only two more performances, May 15th and 16th, at 8 p.m. So, call RLT’s box office at 919/821-3111 and make your reservations now.

For details of these upcoming performances, see our theater calendar.