Art isn’t easy. This well constructed revue of Stephen Sondheim gems is a pleasure to hear, but suffers from a dismally slight production and an unevenly matched cast.
Curated by Julia McKenzie back in 1992, in conjunction with the Great Man himself, the numbers are ostensibly sung by New Yorkers at a fancy cocktail party. A younger couple are amongst the guests of a wealthy older couple, while a quirky third man guides us along. More than most other composers, Sondheim’s songs are not written to be performed as stand alone hits, so the cocktail party conceit works by providing a context, however slight.
Far from a collection of greatest hits, the score features relatively unusual, carefully chosen selections from a wide range of shows, even including no less than four from the film score for Dick Tracy. In an interesting development that demonstrates the changing fortunes and tastes of music theatre, a high proportion of the music is from Merrily We Roll Along. In its day, Sondheim’s biggest flop, Merrily’s music would have been the least known when Putting it Together was, ahem, put together. Following the massive success of the 2013 production, seen at Menier Chocolate Theatre Factory, then the West End, then internationally in cinemas, its music may be amongst the most well known this time around.
Chief attraction amongst the cast of five is a sensational performance by West End treasure Janie Dee. For want of a far more sophisticated description, Dee just “gets it.” She clearly understands what it is to be in a revue, in that you have to offer something of yourself to the audience, as there is no character to hide behind. Moving with grace and flair, Dee has the expressive voice and acting flair to sell the full range of emotions required in her numbers, from poignancy and regret to wit and whimsy.
Following a terrific delivery of “Country House,” from the London production of Follies, Dee creates an explosive act one finale with Phyllis’ searing “Could I Leave You,” also from Follies. Another highlight from the first half is the cheeky gender twist in “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid,” sung by lusty Dee and young character actor Daniel Crossley as the toy-boy maid.
Given Elaine Stritch’s well-known overblown rendition of Company’s “The Ladies who Lunch,” Dee wisely reins this one for an understated, conversational delivery. Dee scores again with comic showstopper “Not Getting Married Today,” the devilish patter song from Company, as the older woman remembers her wedding day. She then grounds the end of the show with Merrily’s “Like It Was,” as the older couple appear to decide to reconcile and move forward positively.
David Bedella provides some solid support as Dee’s partner in the party scenario, working well in duets such as “Country House” and “Have I Got A Girl For You,” but ultimately not bringing any particularly special flair to proceedings.
2013 Merrily star Damian Humbley has easily the best voice of the group but has difficulty showing any degree of personality or spark. Nonetheless, he sounds absolutely wonderful singing numbers such as “Live Alone And Like It,” from Dick Tracy, and true highlight “Marry Me A Little” from Company.
Young actress Caroline Sheen appears somewhat out of depth in the show, giving a pleasant performance but not bringing anything of substance to the songs apart from singing them nicely. Her first number, Forum’s “Lovely,” really needs to be done with a knowing wink rather than playing it completely straight, as a New York woman would surely know how to read or write her name. The point of the song in this context is to show the young woman as putting on a bit of an act to fool men into thinking she is something she is not. Sheen is, unfortunately, shown up immediately following this song when Dee sings a sardonic reprise as the older woman turns up her nose at the other’s vapid affectations.
Given no character to speak of, lively performer Crossley at least has the chance to bring some zing to terrific vaudeville-esque Follies number “Buddy’s Blues.”
With a few mismatched pieces of furniture on the stage, it is not surprising that no set designer is listed in the program. Likewise, in the absence of a costume designer, it would seem clear that the outfits have all been brought along from home.
The band of six musicians, on stage behind the performers, adds a touch of class to the night. Congratulations to musical director Theo Jamieson for the gentle but tight accompaniment.
Despite the complaints listed here, somehow the show works to quite a large extent. Call it the magic of those songs. It is just frustrating to see the potential not really fulfilled. Still, Sondheim fans should absolutely not miss the chance to see and hear this show.
Putting it Together was reviewed 15 January 2014 at St James Theatre, London, where it plays until 1 February 2014.