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Chicago by John Olson

Putting It Together
Porchlight Music Theater at Theatre Wit

Also see John's review of The Kid Thing

Putting It Together
Aja Goes, Alex Weisman, Michael Reckling, McKinley Carter and Adam Pelty
Under the reign of artistic director Walter Stearns, who resigned last season to take another job, Porchlight had an unusual commitment to producing the shows of Stephen Sondheim—11 productions in 12 years. As if to reassure audiences with the first show of the first season sans Stearns that Sondheim would continue to thrive at Porchlight, they've mounted a slick, lively and satisfying production of the Sondheim revue Putting It Together, which I believe has not been done in the area since Gary Griffin's 1997 production at the Court Theater. And, considering the currently licensable version is the revision first presented on Broadway two years later, this production is something of a first for Chicago.

Putting It Together, originally devised by Sondheim and the British actress Julia McKenzie in 2002, found a clever way to forge a revue of the master's songs so that they'd not only make sense but carry the same emotional weight as in the shows for which they were written. That's no easy task, as Sondheim insists on writing songs only to enhance dramatic moments in his musicals and never as standalone pieces. Sondheim and McKenzie thus assembled some 30 of his more accessible and tuneful songs into a song cycle telling the story of two couples at a party hosted by one of the couples. The hosts are an affluent, middle-aged husband and wife at a crossroads in their marriage; their guests are a younger, sexy couple who are dating, and an unattached observer. Over the evening, the older couple fights and reconciles while the younger couple lust after each other and consider marriage. The 1999 Broadway production downplayed this "story," with its all-star cast led by Carol Burnett performing mostly presentationally in a "Hollywood Squares"-like grid of boxes that had no resemblance to anything literal. Productions of the piece have been free to follow the original concept more faithfully and focus on the story, as director Brenda Didier does here. The action occurs on John Zuiker's set depicting an upscale loft apartment in Chicago's West Loop. The set makes use of Theater Wit's exposed brick walls and adds original paintings by Matthew Lew as artwork on the apartment walls. The performers are dressed by Matthew Guthier in suitably sophisticated party attire. Even though the singer/actors are effectively playing their "characters" as they might in a musical play, Didier and Music Director Austin Cook have created an approach to Putting It Together that quite ingeniously manages to be a hybrid of cabaret and musical theater without diminishing the piece in either aspect.

Cook's band of himself on piano, Sam Filip on bass, and Matthew Sitz on percussion are on stage where they address the audience and the performers directly. If you take this Putting It Together as a play, they can read as the party's entertainment. If you view it as a cabaret show, they're simply the band. They open act two with a "solo" of their own—an entr'acte reprising act one numbers that includes a jazz piano improv for pianist Cook and a percussion solo for Sitz. There's just a brief instrumental reference to "Back in Business"— the song from Dick Tracy which is normally sung by the full cast to open the act. Cook, who's a charming performer as well as an astute music director, has reduced Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations to a nightclubby sound reminiscent of Terry Trotter's "Sondheim in Jazz" recordings, but without obscuring the melodies. Even Sitz is a charming performer, and when was the last time you heard of a percussionist in a musical being singled out for charm? Or saw an audience stay to listen to the complete exit music?

Vocally and dramatically, the roles are in very good hands. The older couple a less miserable version of Follies's Ben and Phyllis - are played by Equity performers Adam Pelty and McKinley Carter, two veterans of Chicago and regional musical theater (Pelty's worked on Broadway as well, In Scarlet Pimpernel and Titanic among other shows). Carter is classy and tough but also vulnerable, while Pelty is a confident and commanding presence without becoming unlikeable or arrogant. The younger man is spectacularly well-sung by Michael Reckling, a handsome young singer who brings a clean-cut yet worldly demeanor to the character. His sexy and sultry date is played and sung by Aja Goes, a student at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of the Performing Arts whose performance as seductress is most convincing as she sells the heck out of songs including "Sooner or Later" and "Lovely." In the role originally called "The Observer" and here called simply Man #3, the young Alex Weisman shows an acute sense of comic timing and an immensely likable stage presence. He's not the singer the other four are, but then again neither was Bronson Pinchot in the same role on Broadway. Didier has the five singer/actors move surely and gracefully as they sell their songs. Though there's little dancing per se, what there is, along with her musical staging, keeps the show lively, fluid and very visual.

The only deviations from the 1999 "script" are late in the second act, when the younger man proposes to his date while singing "Marry Me a Little." He declines and he's devastated by her rejection, but then we see her fear of marriage as she sings "(Not) Getting Married Today" the big comedy number from Company. Though that song is usually assigned to the older woman, it much more naturally fits situation of the younger woman.

Didier and Cook, who it seems must equally credited with the subtle but enormously effective reimagining of the piece, have created a hybrid of the original concept the more dramatically focused original concept with the more concert-like performance of the Broadway version that combines the best of both. It's a thoroughly professional production that's at least as good as anything in Porchlight's past and bodes well for its future.

Putting It Together will play through October 16, 2011 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-975-8150 or go to www.theaterwit.org, or www.porchlightmusictheatre.com .


Photo: Jeremy Rill

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-- John Olson



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