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|A CurtainUp Review
Putting It Togethe
Having become something of a national treasure, Carol Burnett is the first, second, third and only reason for many to buy a ticket for Putting It Together. Indeed Ms. Burnett hasn't lost her foghorn voice power and mile-wide smile. She also looks terrific in the glittery black and silver outfit Bob Mackie has designed for her. A couple of times during this two-act Stephen Sondheim songfest she even manages to put her own souped up Burnettian spin on the darker Sondheimian sensibility -- notably in her caustic rebuttal to Ruthie Henshall's "Lovely" (from A Funny Thing Happened to Me On the Way to the Forum) and in a show-stopping "Not Getting Married" (Company) during the second and more energetic half of the show.
Even though Burnett's "Ladies Who Lunch" lacks some of the tang of Elaine Stritch's 100% Sondheim rendition, it's got enough of the bitter sweet flavor to be an Act II high spot. Ms. Henshall, while still too young to be an icon is nevertheless a rising young British musical star (Chicago's Roxie Hart in London and Velma Kelley in New York). She works well in tandem with Burnett and in her own show-stopper solo, "More" (Dick Tracy).
With all due respect to Burnett and Henshall (identified here as The Older Woman/Wife and The Younger Woman) as well as the three men (The Older Man/Husband, The Younger Man and The Observer) who round out the cast, the real stars of the show are the Sondheim songs. Individually and as part of an assemblage such as this, Sondheim's lyrics and melodies are a triumph of ultra-sophistication with emotional depth, especially so with Jonathan Tunick's as always impeccable orchestrations.
Ah, but there's the rub!
Because Sondheim's songs dig so deep into the emotions that each, like a good poem, condenses a full story into a few stanzas. They thus tend to stand on firm ground even outside the context of the shows for which they were written. That's why Side By Side, Sondheim's first and most successful song revue worked without any attempt to superimpose a secondary plot.
And that's why the plot that shoehorns some thirty songs into Putting It Together's concept of a New York City cocktail party seems largely an excuse for Director Eric D. Schaeffer to stage a show more in keeping with a real book musical than the simpler settings associated with intimate revues. Bob Crowley's inventive set nicely reflects Sondheim's cool wit. Instead of the usual chairs revue singers perch on, there are boxes popping in and out of the stage. There's also an abstract multi-level diorama of boxes, framed by horizontal skyscrapers and tubes of neon and furnished with variously sized Eames chairs that look like an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The under-sized cubby hole in which The Younger Woman thrashes about as she sings "It's Hot Up Here" (Sunday In the Park With George) gets a big laugh ( probably from people who are reminded of the half-sized floor in the hilarious On Being John Malkovich.
Wendell K. Harrington's first and final projections of an Edward Gorey cocktail party group smartly offsets the otherwise underpopulated cocktail party. The overall abstract flavor of the design is, I suppose, meant to complement the feather light plot and avoid questions as to why this party jumps from the stage level to these boxed- in views of life in the lonely New York skyscraper world. As for the the plot per se -- an older couple (Burnett and George Hearn) unpack their disillusions and marital troubles. The other human threads used to connect the musical dots are a younger less jaundiced couple (Henshall and John Barrowman ably represented by his stand in David Engel at the performance I attended) and a commentator (the gifted young comic, Bronson Pinchot). Pinchot, like Burnett, tries to lighten up the somber mood that is Sondheim's trademark. His opening act as a pretend usher who in a Sondheim for Dummies routine (written by Sondheim) demystifies the cerebral composer. This and his one word introductions to various scenes actually work very well. His explanation as to why this revue is tagged as a review (because Sondheim wants you to think) remains as flimsy as the plot. A revue is what you get. A review is what I'm writing -- an appraisal of any creative work.
When judged as the latest (actually it's a reworking of an earlier version) of Mr. Sondheim's three revues, Side by Side , even without a big-bang star like Carol Burnett stand superior to Putting It Together. Another book-revue I covered during its revival at the Queens Theater in the Park a few seasons ago (see link below), Marry Me A Little, more successfully overlayed songs with a story, using just two actors on a kitchen-sink style set. Still, as one of the lyrics states, "art isn't easy". With the much anticipated big new Sondheim musical, Wise Guys, having just become a "no show" maybe we should enjoy what's to enjoy and forgive Mr. Schaeffer's for putting this show together -- imperfectly.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
Marry Me a Little