Sondheim Putting It Together, Music Book and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Devised by Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie. Directed by James Benjamin Rodgers.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Well, that’s a great big whale off my mind."
Most musical reviews string songs together to make little scenes, though the point of the show is just the songs themselves. Give Stephen Sondheim a chance to create a review of his own material and there is a deeper, underlying thread that holds the show together. That’s Putting It Together correctly.
In this show, currently playing on the circular stage of The Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, the theme of the show, a marriage that may have gone on too long, is given wonderful play by a company of fine singing actors and a director with an eye for detail. James Benjamin Rodgers leads his quintet of players, three men and two women, through the complicated convolutions of Sondheim and McKenzie’s "book" for the show. An interlocutor, Man #3, instructs the audience, dictates to the players and keeps the idea of rolling along rolling along. The double duos follow his lead and lead us through the ins and outs of a marital love affair that may be between unsuitable partners.
Sondheim’s songs lend themselves to this sort of internalizing, this sort of plotting. In the hands of the Mac-Haydn crew the songs shine brilliantly in their interpretations. There are forty songs in all in this show from familiar sources like "Company" and "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" and "A Little Night Music" along with rarities from "Dick Tracy" and from Sondheim’s chest of little-exposed treasures.
Monica M. Wemitt and Michael McAssey are the older couple struggling to stay convinced that their choices were the right ones. Julia Mosby and Elliot Lane are the younger couple struggling with the start of something romantic and promising. Michael O’Brien plays the man whose interest in keeping things moving o’ersways the other four players.
O’Brien has a good voice and a terrific on-stage personality. Often his facial expressions tell us more than even the most complex Sondheim lyric. He has a sinuous personality in this part and when he uses that to move and motivate the players it is a wonderful thing to behold. This seems to be part of Rodgers concept for the show and it is often more arresting than it might be in other hands.
The infrequent resistor to all of this magical realism is Monica M. Wemitt’s character. Infused with Wemitt’s voice, looks and personality, she is the only player who can break from the spell O’Brien casts and she does it with relish. We take great pleasure in her strength and deep-felt delight in her vocalism in standards such as "Could I Leave You?" and "Every Day a Little Death," and "Like It Was." Her oddest offering is "Sweet Polly Plunkett," a Sondheim rarity.
As the man in her life McAssey lends visual and vocal power to "Rich and Happy" and "Country House" and "Sorry-Grateful" which was one of the finest moments in this show. As Man #1 he offers a powerful actor’s force to the proceedings and his vocalism; could not be a more perfect match for Wemitt’s chops. . .of all kinds.
Mosby shines in her more seductive numbers from the simplicity of "Lovely" to the overt sexuality of "Bang!" and the sensual moralities of "I Will Marry the Miller’s Son." She makes the most of "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy in a lengthy suite of songs. Her swain, Lane, delivers on all of his songs, especially "Pretty Women" and "Live Alone and Like It." He steps forward from the ensemble exhibiting warmth and charm galore.
As good as all four principals are in the show, the performance does ride on Man #3, on Michael O’Brien, being as strong and as pointed as he is in this show, holding folks together, remaining calm and making the most of now.
It probably helps to like Sondheim and his often difficult lyrics and complicated harmonies and rhythms. Even so I think this show is accessible and an enjoyable experience for anyone who like to work a puzzle and come up with a solution. In the much improved sound environment of this summer theater, with good musicians, perfect lighting by Andrew Gmoser on a simple, elegant setting designed by Kevin Gleason on which the Jimm Halliday dressed players parade their deepest secrets and broadest emotions, this show is as good as it gets. A different "top" for Wemitt would help the show out of its one minor flaw. But even the best show has a challenge that is hard to overcome. This one is no exception but the talent on display in the music, singing, acting and their combined impact over-ride any silly flaw.
Sondheim Putting It Together plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre located at 1925 Route 203 in Chatham, New York through June 1. For information and tickets call 518-392-9292 or go on line to www.machaydntheatre.org.