‘Putting It Together’

A revue, even if, like Putting It Together, it calls itself a review, had better content itself with not trying for a story; that is the job of the book musical. Given its title, I hate taking it apart, but then, it pretty much falls to pieces on its own. It is a selection of numbers from Stephen Sondheim shows, one film, and one unproduced television movie, and was first attempted in 1992-93 by Julia McKenzie. She gave us a realistic party at which an older married couple and a younger unmarried one became variously entangled, and one odd man acted as both participant and commentator. It didn’t work: The plot refused to cohere and all but tripped up the terrific numbers.

Eric D. Schaeffer’s version, with much the same material, tries to be more abstract in its trappings, while also espousing a similar scenario, played out against a surreal set of neon tubes, irrelevant slide projections, and peculiarly piled-up cubicles occupied by miniature chairs and, occasionally, actors, all making the plot even more uncomfortable.

The cunning designer Bob Crowley summons up a kind of Dadaist discotheque, where cubes rise out of or sink into the floor and other props mysteriously materialize. The asymmetrical network of neon, by Crowley and his lighting designer Howard Harrison, outdoes a chameleon in color changes; the slide projections by the ubiquitous Wendall K. Harrington – sometimes realistic, sometimes fantastic, sometimes merely decorative – are pretty but essentially disconnected from the proceedings. Crowley’s costumes, like Bob Mackie’s for the wife, are cannily chosen, but the fine choreographer Bob Avian is clearly more at ease with large-scale musicals than with an intimate five-character revue. Or review.

If Schaeffer’s busy staging yields much of anything, it is largely due to his mostly interesting performers. Carol Burnett, the star, unfortunately does not trust her aptitude for good, straightforward work and fiercely camps up some songs, often clowning around in her manic TV fashion. Yet on the rare occasions when she relaxes, she can be utterly winning. Her opposite number, George Hearn, sings persuasively but is a trifle stiff, his looks verging disquietingly on Liberace’s.

As the young woman, Ruthie Henshall is a shade less compelling than in some previous outings but is still a piquant combination of comedienne and seductress, amusing singer and scissor-sharp dancer; she delivers her big solo, “More” (from the film Dick Tracy), with consummate panache. John Barrowman does the young man somewhat blandly but amiably, scoring handily with his rendition of “Marry Me a Little.” But it is Bronson Pinchot, as the Observer, who runs away with the show. Giving off whiffs of a sturdier Roddy McDowall, more controlled Robin Williams, and funkier Orson Bean, he is ultimately his unique protean self: irrepressible compère, comically deadpan announcer, versatile singing and dancing actor with nary a false move or intonation.

And then, of course, the songs, with their supersophisticated lyrics and ultracivilized melodies that can be as witty as they can be moving, or even both together, and yet again reaffirm Sondheim’s supremacy in his field. Add to that – a marriage made in Heaven – Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and your ears will float blissfully past the demurs of your eyes. Still, how much better this was done by Side by Side by Sondheim, which happily stuck to the confines of a revue.

‘Putting It Together’