It’s a scold that needs no explaining.
Conventional wisdom anointed Sondheim the reigning master of American
musical theater more than a generation ago, but his shows since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) have appealed more to the few than to the many. His earlier, better-known revue Side By Side by Sondheim
(also produced by Syracuse Stage in 1979) sought to make the master
more appealing to non-believers. While there’s plenty of artistic and
emotional variety in Putting It Together, which Sondheim
compiled with Julia McKenzie, the assumption here is that the audience
is already hip to the aesthetic. The rewards are in finding how
terrific some obscure songs are, and how familiar ones catch fire in
Loving couples: Stephanie Youell and Tyler Hanes in Syracuse Stage’s Putting It Together. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Unlike Side By Side, Putting It Together
has the beginnings of a narrative, much as many Sondheim songs do. The
setting, splendidly realized by scenic designer Felix Cochren, is a
posh Manhattan townhouse with a crystal chandelier and double staircase
upstage, right out of Paramount Pictures. The aforementioned emcee,
known in some versions as the Observer, introduces the show with some
witticisms taken from the little-seen The Frogs and then launches into the title song, taken from Sunday in the Park With George.
The Observer (Andre Ward) takes little part in the action but is there
when he’s needed, such as to be a comic foil in “Everybody Ought to
Have a Maid.” The title song smooths the entry of the four principals,
the younger couple not yet jaundiced (Stephanie Youell and Tyler
Hanes), and an older married couple (Lillias White and Chuck Cooper)
well-versed in marital troubles and disillusionment.
Like Side by Side, Putting It Together originated in Britain, where Sondheim appeals more to the many than to the few. And like the older show, Putting It Together
can add or delete songs from production to production, but the
principals do not break out of character. The younger woman could never
take over a song from the older woman of another production. As she is
last to make her entrance and is usually the best-known performer in
the cast, the identity of the older woman shapes the tone of each
production. At the 1992 premiere in Oxford, England, this character was
portrayed by Dame Diana Rigg, not usually thought of as a singer. New
Yorkers first got to know Putting It Together in an
off-Broadway production (1993) with Julie Andrews, with a similar
persona to Rigg’s. Five years later Carol Burnett led the Los Angles
revival (1998), which moved to Broadway (1999).
Lillias White, a widely experienced Broadway veteran (she’s a Tony Award winner for The Life
in 1997), brings her own distinctive presence but she’s closer to
Burnett than the others. She draws raucous laughter where Rigg or
Andrews would not have trod. Chuck Cooper, White’s better half in this
production, also won a 1997 Tony for The Life.
Director-choreographer Rajendra Ramoon
Maharaj’s team includes musical director-pianist Dianne Adams McDowell,
assisted by percussionist Jimmy Johns. McDowell has long been an asset
for many Syracuse Stage musicals, and if you’re sitting where you can
watch her face during the show, often mouthing the lyrics, you can see
how deeply she’s into Sondheim. Putting It Together may offer much to the eye, with movement and stage business vastly reduced from Maharaj’s Godspell
last month, but the show’s music is what has brought us to it. Maharaj
and McDowell get the most out of five top-notch performers with
extensive Broadway and national credits. Some of the strongest numbers
in the show, not surprisingly, involve the entire cast, especially
“Lovely” from Forum and “Rich and Happy” and “Old Friends” from the rarely revived Merrily We Roll Along.
Tenor Tyler Hanes enriches several of the duets in Act I, especially “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd and “Unworthy of Your Love” from Assassins,
but his biggest numbers come with his second-act solos. The
little-heard “Live Alone and Like It” from the 1990 Warren
Beatty-Madonna movie Dick Tracy ranks as one of the best
rediscovered songs in the repertory. Hanes soon follows that tune with
the tentative “Marry Me a Little” from Company.
Soprano Stephanie Youell, whose credits include both opera and demanding roles in golden-age shows like Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof,
just happens to be a classic, Nordic princess and drop-dead gorgeous,
assets director Maharaj does not neglect to exploit. We see her
well-toned thighs often, but the object is not always allure. She
projects plenty of heat in “More,” the Madonna solo from Dick Tracy.
But her beauty works to comic effect in the duet where she airily
laughs off her inability to cook, sew, read or write, while White, a
more than zaftig character player, mocks her.
Baritone Chuck Cooper bears much of the emotional weight
of Sondheim’s anxiety. Some of his most moving numbers are also the
saddest, like “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies and “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along. On some duets he’s a bit frisky, like “Have I Got a Girl for You” from Company, but generally his assignment is gravitas. But as Andre Ward’s Observer said at the intro, this ain’t Mamma Mia.
The first among equals then is Lillias
White, who also inserts portions of her own persona into the
characterization. She may not have been called upon to be funny in The Life, but we sense as soon as she takes the stage that she’s a born comedienne. Fittingly, then, her “My Husband the Pig” from A Little Night Music
comes with a dash of irony. After a generation of nontraditional
casting we’ve become used to looking past a performer’s race, but Ms.
White embellishes many lines with jazzy flourishes. Her humor, as in
“The Ladies Who Lunch,” is her own and nothing like Carol Burnett’s. So
if Michael Steele can become the first black head of the Republican
National Committee, to say nothing of Barack Obama, an African-American
woman remains African-American when she sings Sondheim.
Sondheim’s music may never be confused with Abba’s, but
those who feel passionately for him include many young people. To make
them feel welcome at 820 E. Genesee St. at this perilous economic
moment, Syracuse Stage will charge only $20 to any playgoers under age
40 for any performance during the run of Putting It Together.
This production runs through Feb. 15. See Times Table for information.