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Putting It Together

Without a doubt, Stephen Sondheim is my favorite theatrical composer. His songs are, in my opinion, unmatched - clever, touching, hysterically funny, thoughtful and diverse. And I happen to find them utterly listenable. Putting It Together, playing at The Mark Taper Forum through December 6, is a thinly plotted production, which attempts to create a vehicle by which to perform many of Sondheim's songs in some sort of sensible fashion. Unfortunately, however, this production does not live up to its promise. In my opinion, this show should have been done as a concert or a straight revue.

Set at a cocktail party in New York City, two couples - one a middle-aged married couple (Carol Burnett and John McCook), the other young lovers (Susan Egan and John Barrowman) just starting out - reflect through Sondheim's songs on the complexities that make up modern heterosexual relationships. Throughout, the proceedings are observed by an outsider (Bronson Pinchot), who provides insight and commentary on the goings-on.

Under Eric Schaeffer's (Artistic Director/Co-founder of the Signature Theatre) direction, Putting It Together seems as though it's a flimsy excuse to put some beautiful songs on stage. It has some terrific moments. Bronson Pinchot's opening number, "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" (from 1974's The Frogs), sets an incredibly high standard that most of the rest of the show fails to live up to. There are some other funny moments. For instance, "Lovely" - from Forum - sung by a classic Burnett and her, yes, lovely young rival in the piece, Egan; "Could I Leave You?" (from Follies) and "Not Getting Married Today" (from Company), both brilliantly and cleverly interpreted by Burnett; "Bang" (A Little Night Music), sung by Pinchot and danced - very sexily - and accented by Barrowman and Egan.

The show is also hindered greatly by the extremely poor singing voice of soap opera ("The Bold and the Beautiful") actor John McCook. Quite frankly, he ruined the duets "Do I Hear A Waltz?", "The Road You Didn't Take" (from Follies), "Have I Got A Girl For You" (Company), as well as his lecherous take on "Hello, Little Girl" (Into the Woods). He brings the show down - a lot.

I'm glad I finally got to see John Barrowman. He looks great on stage and has a tremendous voice. His duet with Egan on "Unworthy of Your Love" (Assassins) is emotionally quite satisfying, though the song really doesn't belong in a show not about crazy, obsessed stalkers. His part in the duet of "Pretty Women" (Sweeney Todd) was great to hear - good enough to allow even McCook's part not to ruin it. It will be interesting to see what lies in store for this immense talent.

Bronson Pinchot is really the big surprise in this show. Though we all know him for his nutty comedy antics in Beverly Hills Cop and seven years of TV's "Perfect Strangers", followed by a couple of seasons of "Step by Step" and his short-lived series "Meego", he is quite the able musical comedy actor. With his perfect timing and facility at moving easily on stage, his voice and manner (he does a terrific job opening "Merrily We Roll Along") leads me to believe that we might be looking at the next Martin Short (I actually mean that as a compliment). He is so much fun to watch, as again demonstrated by his "Buddy's Blues" (Follies) and his part in the duet of "Come Play Wiz Me" (Anyone Can Whistle).

Susan Egan stands out in this production. Her crystal clear voice, along with her ability to shift from innocence to sophistication, sincerity to deviousness, and her charm and stage presence confirm that Egan deserves her place as one of this country's leading stage ingenues. Her sly seductiveness leads to wonderful performances of "Sooner or Later" and "More" (both from the motion picture Dick Tracy) and her wonderful duets of "Unworthy of Your Love" with Barrowman, "Every Day A Little Death" (A Little Night Music), "Lovely" (Forum) and "There's Always a Woman" (Anyone Can Whistle) with Burnett clearly show off her own comic timing and ability to appear coy, bitchy and clever. Yet, you always find yourself rooting for her. She truly holds her own.

Then there's Carol Burnett. I must tell you that I saw Carol in previews and her standby, Teri Ralston (from the original cast of Company), during the show's regular run. Teri, though obviously not Carol in star stature, is one talented performer, a delightful combination of Carol herself and Elaine Stritch. When Teri sang both "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Not Getting Married Today" (both from Company) she, like Carol, got extended ovations that delayed the show. Carol, fun to watch because we all know and love her, demonstrates exactly WHY that is so. Teri Ralston fills that role so admirably as the perfect Sondheim actress - elegant, yet underappreciated by the men in her life, sophisticated, and incredibly self-aware. And what a rich, raspy, Stritch-like voice! I was very happy to be introduced to her in this part - she is in no way second-rate.

Overall, however, though four out of the five performances (or five out of six if you count Ralston) were quite admirable, the show does not work. As stated above, it really should be done as a concert or a revue. There is no real set to speak of, nor is there much of a story either. It's more like we're being offered a situation, and not a very satisfying one at that. Ultimately, it's rather depressing. So, Putting It Together is worth seeing if you're a Sondheim-lover, like myself, or a Burnett or Barrowman-lover, but it's not for the average casual theatergoer. I just don't think it will work for them. And I don't know if it's such a good idea for this show to be transferred to Broadway. There's just not enough "there" there. The show will only last as long as there is a star, an audience-magnet in the cast.

That said, Putting It Together is scheduled to play at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles until December 6 (and there definitely are talks of it transferring to Broadway later this season).

And, remember, The Last Session is opening in Los Angeles on December 5 at the Tiffany Theatre on the Sunset Strip. It's the same production that played in Laguna a couple of months back to a sell-out and rave reviews. You can read mine here on Talkin' Broadway.

From Los Angeles, Happy Holidays, and I'll be reviewing here again when Titanic docks in LA in January! Best in '99!


-- Jerry Howard




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