Putting It Together

Barbara Haas 02/03/09More articles
A stage production by Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie at Syracuse Stage:

“Please don’t say ‘Ah’ when you hear a song you recognize,” Stephen Sondheim instructs the audience in the witty lyrics to the number that opens Putting It Together, the Sondheim review now playing at Syracuse Stage.

Unless you’re a true Sondheim enthusiast, you’re not likely to go “Ah” too often in this show, because even though he was a devoted protégée of Oscar Hammerstein, he didn’t write the kind of songs that send you out of the theater humming the tunes. With the exception of Send in the Clowns (which isn’t part of this review), few of his songs are widely familiar. His remarkable achievement was to create musicals in which wonderful lyrics and a complex score work hand in glove as an integral whole to develop the characters and tell the story.

The 30-or-so individual numbers of this review are drawn from some dozen musicals as diverse as the broadly comic A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to the gently melancholy A Little Night Music. Creator Julia McKenzie, who put this show together with help from Stephen Sondheim, has tried to give it some thematic shape by following the marital ups and downs of an older couple who are hosting a party at their swank New York apartment and a younger couple who are their guests.

Director/Choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has said in press material that he considers the show a musical play along the lines of the sparring couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

My advice is not to try too hard to follow the through-line. Extracted as they are from their original shows, the individual numbers work well as little mini-playlets, with the varying moods of each one following one another in pleasing succession.

The older couple is played by Lillias White and Chuck Cooper, two Broadway veterans with a long, long list of credits. As Artistic Director Tim Bond proudly pointed out on opening night, this production reunites these two for the first time since they both won Tony Awards for the 1997 musical, The Life. In their occasional duets, these two had a real chemistry going between them, as when they played the part of a disenchanted but emotionally-connected couple groping for what might reunite them – a country house, a child, a boat? Chuck Cooper’s rich baritone voice made me wish I could hear him in a role with a little more substance to it.

For me Lillias White was the real surprise of the show, investing Sondheim’s songs with an interpretation all her own. Give her a long note and she’ll run away with it, elaborating upon it with all the soulful yearning of a gospel hymn. In her comic numbers, Miss White turned what might have been a sardonic sneer into a growly-voiced grimace, and she made sure to lean over so we could get a good look at the quaking of her mammoth breasts.

As the young couple, Tyler Hanes and Stephanie Youell offered a complete contrast, both vocally and visually. Hanes sweet tenor came across well in tender ballades like Unworthy of Your Love, while Maharaj’s choreography showed Youell’s leggy vamping to advantage. With his toothy grin and comic talent, André Ward filled in the gaps wherever needed.

Seated inconspicuously at the piano at the rear of Felix Cochren’s set was the remarkable Dianne Adams McDowell, who along with percussionist Jimmy Johns provided the musical underpinning of the show. Not only did she never miss a beat, but as a sensitive accompanist, she surely added one or two when a singer had a glitch in one of the fast patter songs.

Last year S.U. Drama gave us a wonderful production of Sweeney Todd. Let’s hope this review is just a taste of a full Sondheim production that Syracuse Stage might do sometime in the future.

The skinny:
Ticket prices:
Adult: $24-$48, with discounts for seniors and students.
Age 40 and below: $20 for any performance.
Show runs through Feb. 15

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: putting it together,Syracuse stage,Sondheim,Julia McKenzie,Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj,Lillias White,Chuck Cooper
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.0/5 (7 votes cast)

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