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Theater review: 'Putting It Together' at South Coast Repertory

September 20, 2009 |  2:55 pm

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“Putting It Together,” the makeshift audience-friendly collage from the early ’90s compiling Stephen Sondheim’s “sorry-grateful” love tunes and other melancholy ditties from his astonishing catalog, isn’t a particularly bold way for South Coast Repertory, a theater that has made its name developing new American plays, to launch its current season. But the production, which opened this weekend under the direction of Nick DeGruccio, was executed just well enough to afford Sondheim addicts like me yet another opportunity to dive into the composer’s heart-tugging lyrical complexity.

That’s reason to be more grateful than sorry, especially if you’re one of those unabashed fans of “best of” packaging. But America’s greatest living theater composer, to invoke Sondheim’s widely heralded designation, has made a specialty of misgivings, and this production, with its solid but far from stellar cast, raises its fair share of questions.

Chief among these quibbles: Just who are these performers playing exactly? It’s clear that Harry Groener and Mary Gordon Murray are portraying the well-heeled, tensely married hosts of this glamorous cocktail party, held at the couple's enviable Manhattan condo. (Set designer Thomas Buderwitz conjures the ambience in a conspicuously consuming manner that combines a gaudy chandelier, showy artworks and a dramatic staircase with a breathtaking skyline view that could easily double the apartment’s price tag.)

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The rest, however, are harder to pin down. Dan Callaway seems to want to convey some semblance of commitment-phobe “Bobby” from “Company,” but he makes for a rather nebulous guest. And Niki Scalera’s single woman who starts off as a catering assistant and Matt McGrath’s puckish observer and joker who moves from the pre-show announcement about cellphones and candy wrappers to the “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” from “The Frogs” aren’t always a natural fit in the elitist milieu that's cooked up. 
 
Not that the fault should be pinned entirely on the actors, all of whom are capable singers (Scalera, in particular, is vocally strong). If their presences can be bland, fuzzy or incongruous, Soojin Lee’s ill-fitting tuxes for two of the men (McGrath gets more garish duds) and forgettable ensembles for the women certainly don’t help matters. But the bigger problem is that this crocheting of numbers from a disparate array of musicals, with only an artificially imposed setting uniting them, operates in limbo that is less than a book musical yet more than a song cycle.

Devised by Sondheim and Julia McKenzie, the show demonstrates a fair amount of cleverness in the sequencing of songs — at times you can even feel the composer’s deft wit puzzling out crossword-like solutions, as when the upscale marital malaise of “Country House” and “Could I Leave You?” from “Follies” are paired in a first act that also contains the bawdy “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But the use of party games to justify the inclusion of “The Miller’s Son” from “A Little Night Music” and “Sweet Polly Plunkett” from “Sweeny Todd” doesn’t add much to our store of insight into the shadowy figures before us.
 
Perhaps the show is taking its liberties from its title song, “Putting It Together,” the only offering (strangely) from “Sunday in the Park With George.” The number, anatomizing “the art of making art,” floats the elastic notion that “every moment makes a contribution / every little detail plays a part.”

Yet if the creators had really taken this to heart, they might have been able to reveal more sides of Sondheim’s genius. The interest here is almost exclusively in relationships, the highs and lows and, even more important, the endless in betweens.

One thing DeGruccio gets right, aided by musical director Dennis Castellano and his out-of-sight fellow musicians, is the way the music bubbles up in the penthouse with dramatic credibility, never overpowering the scene. The effect can be heartbreaking, especially during Groener’s meditative handling of “Sorry-Grateful” from “Company” and Murray’s plea-like rendition of “Like It Was” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” And when the ensemble performs “Being Alive” from “Company,” the emotion accrues the weight of multiple dreams and losses.

“Putting It Together” is a Sondheim bouquet in which, even though the songs aren’t meant to be grouped together, their poignant individual loveliness makes it impossible to go completely wrong.

— Charles McNulty

"Putting It Together," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 11. $33-$70. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org.  Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Photo: Harry Groener, Niki Scalera, Dan Callaway and Matt McGrath. Bottom: Mary Gordon Murray. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

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