Ah, the real Sondheim. For my money, this is one of his five best musicals, and thus better than anything most composers will ever do.
I've seen two professional productions before. The first was the Donmar Warehouse's excellent 1995 revival, starring Adrian Lester. The second was two years ago in the tiny Union Theatre, also excellent. So this one had something to live up to.
The setting is minimalist and it's not clear when its set. Bobby has a Mac laptop and an iPhone (including snorting off it at one point) and the music on the radio or at the disco is modern, but the camera used in one scene is a 1970s/80s 35mm one and the costumes – bearing in mind that I think that, with clothes, fashion is something that happens to someone else – look to be from the same period.
Despite the programme apparently claiming 'present day', I'm guessing it's still supposed to be the earlier period, because there is a scene where one character smokes – indoors! – despite being banned in New York clubs since 2003. I had forgotten that bit, but there was a warning on the auditorium door about this. I groaned to myself, then sat as low down as possible. Fortunately, the character's partner failed to get their lighter to work! Yes! It even works better that way in terms of the scene: he's failing to provide what she wants and she's too drunk to do it herself. Make this an official change to the piece!
Two problems do remain. All of Bobby's girlfriends are noticeably not as good singing as the wives he is friends with, but again, you can say this enhances the piece. One of those showing them how it should be done is Siobhan McCarthy's Joanne (albeit the youngest Joanne I've seen outside student productions) who I saw last year in a fringe revival of the tragically badly promoted Drowsy Chaperone.
The second will be cured if and when this gets a transfer. For some reason, despite this being a small space, everyone is miked. Sometimes, as with Bobby, this is stupidly apparent visually – it looks like he's got a pendant on his forehead! Similarly, you hear the band over a speaker system. But combine the sound design with the 'underneath the arches' shape of the space, and it sounds painful at times, especially with loud or high pitched sounds. I don't know if the sound balance should be better or if the whole thing is just a bad decision, but in a different space, it will sound better.
Apart from that, it's wonderful from beginning to end. Not necessarily better than the other two productions, but still one to be highly recommended.