L-R: Christina Stroup, Justin White), David Wald, Terry Jones and Tamara Siler. Photo courtesy of RicOrnelProductions.com
Putting it Together
Word and Music : Stephen Sondheim
Devised by: Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie
Directed by: Andrew Ruthven
Musical Direction by: Luke Kirkwood
Company: Main Street Theater
Run Dates: January 3 – February 1, 2015
Has Stephen Sondheim written so many songs about relationships, marriage and the stresses of searching for, maintaining and fighting about love that he can put them all together to create a credible story arc? Apparently he thinks so. That’s the conceit anyway behind the 1992 Sondheim mash-up musical, Putting It Together, which takes thirty or so numbers from the song master’s repertoire of musicals and films and loosely strings them into a two-hour story line.
The narrative, such as it is, concerns an older and younger couple dealing with issues and complexities in their respective relationships while at a Manhattan cocktail party. Many of the usual numbers are there either in full form on in snippets, including songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along, Dick Tracy, Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
So yes, unlike Sondheim’s previous song cycle show, Side by Side Sondheim, which was a true revue (as opposed to ‘review’ which is how we are instructed to approach this production) Putting it Together does offer some kind of contrived narrative journey for the audience to go on. But here, under Andrew Ruthven’s direction and musical staging, the already overly manufactured and empty experience of listening to Sondheim’s brilliant songs taken out of context, squished together and forced to play nice with each other feels even more hollow and glib.
To be fair, Ruthven doesn’t have much to work in terms of story or the tiny Ovations Night Club space he must work with. Utilizing the maximum amount of the cabaret-style space, Ruthven moves his cast through the audience, up the staircases and onto the second story balconies at the back of the stage in an effort to bring some kind of trajectory to the show. At times it works, but more often than not we feel that the staging is desperately trying to fill in for the fact that there just really isn’t much to sink your teeth into here.
More problematic is the music, courtesy of the three-piece band on stage and under the musical direction of Luke Kirkwood. Even if the show’s narrative pleasures are severely hamstrung by its form, we should at least be allowed to revel in the delicious lyrics that make up Sondheim’s songs. But for most of the first act, the sound level of the piano and percussion competed too heavily with the lyrics, making it a straining experience to fully hear some of the performers. In other cases, such as in the beloved “Ladies who Lunch” number, the arrangements seem to have been fed through a Musak filter and burped back at us, now resembling the pedestrian soundtrack one hears at the supermarket.
Which leaves the cast. Despite all the roadblocks stopping this production from being a gratifying experience, a fully capable performer could have elevated the show to at least a satisfactorily fun time. Sondheim’s songs are such emotional and intellectual gems that simply singing them well isn’t enough. To truly do them justice, you need to display strong actorly chops to bring out their beauty. This was the case with only three of the performers.
As The Observer (a narrator kind of character drawn to help move things along), David Wald’s delivers a breezy performance that isn’t afraid of going a little over the top in his numbers (in particular, a funny, hammy, Buddies Blues). Wald is the energizer bunny in the bunch and his enthusiasm is infectious onstage. Christina Stroup as the Younger Woman outshines them all with her powerful voice that knocks numbers like “Sooner or Later” and “More” outta the park. But what truly elevated Stroup’s performance was her ability to emote and inhabit. As drop in the bucket as the musical numbers are in this show, Stroup did her darndest to bring some kind of inner life to her character and won our attention as a result. No one however was better at bringing character to the stage with subtle finesse than Justin White as The Younger Man. White’s clear voice entertained in all of his numbers, but it was his ability to actually get in the head of the character singing the various songs that made his performance a standout. So much so that halfway through his solo, “Marry me a Little”, I would have happily put him up for a role in a full Sondheim production.
Tamara Siler as The Wife and Terry Jones as The Husband didn’t fare as well. Siler’s strong voice just couldn’t make up for the fact that her delivery was far too emotionally vanilla to carry any substance. In, “Could I Leave You”, a spitefully funny song, Siler seemed to run through the motions, sapping all the fun out of the number. She improved somewhat in the second act and managed to do some justice to “The Ladies Who Lunch”, but again missed the opportunity to become a strong character instead of simply a strong singer.
Jones, with a soothing if a bit thin voice, seemed to have no idea who it was he was playing. Where was the sexual tension and menace in his “Hello Little Girl”, here repurposed as a seduction of the younger woman? Where was the frustration and resentment in “Country House”? And where was the melancholy in, “The Road You Didn’t Take”? His was an unfortunately absent performance that neither did justice to the songs nor the energy of the rest of the cast.
It’s hard to say that two hours of Sondheim songs isn’t a pleasant way to spend an evening, but then on some level these really aren’t his numbers. Not in this production anyway and I suspect not in this format at all. Putting it Together may have satisfied calls for Sondheim to produce yet another review (revue) for his adoring audience, but by putting his work together in this fashion, the whole effort crumbles and suffers.
For Sondheim fans – While it’s lovely to hear the songs live, and at times performed well here, there is so much lacking in production, context and arrangement that nerve grating is sure to ensue. SKIP IT
For Sondheim newbies – The songs will seem pleasant and funny enough to your ear and will hopefully be an entrée into the full works for you at another time, but the strained plot and differing talent levels might leave you wondering what all the fanaticism is about. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Two hours of songs in an arc that has little to no tension or action will probably not be your idea of a good night in the theater. SKIP IT
For the theater junkie – A show and a production that strips a theater genius’s revolutionary song writing prowess and renders the work limp and obvious. That’s something you don’t need to see. However, take note to remember the name Justin White and buy a ticket to the next show he’s in. Fingers crossed it’s a better use of his talents. SKIP IT