Putting It Together continues at the St James Theatre, London until 1 February.
This is a lesser-known Stephen Sondheim revue that was first performed in 1992 at the Old Fire Station Studio Theatre in Oxford. Subsequent productions took place, notably in New York, Los Angeles and Chichester, each slightly different in song content and ‘story’. All performed by five players, sometimes with the characters being named, on other occasions with the roles just described as Man, Woman etc. There would be an older couple, whose marriage was stale/falling apart, an eligible bachelor, a nubile young girl, and a fifth character, a lone male, acting as a commentator on the evening’s unfolding events. The location was always a party, maybe a 25th wedding anniversary or just a cocktail affair.
Starting life in Guildford last September for four performances only, Alex Parker’s production (directed by Alastair Knights) begins with the artists arriving to put together the musical revue. This conceit provides an opportunity for some inventive business that allows actor Daniel Crossley to warm up the audience before launching into Sondheim’s amusing instructions from Sondheim’s musical The Frogs.
The setting is in fact a cocktail party to which the older couple, Janie Dee and David Bedella, have invited their single male friend, Damian Humbley. In turn he has brought along a young girl, Caroline Sheen, with whom he is just embarking on a relationship. Inevitably undercurrents surface, with flirtations and seductions suggested through the music.
Any choice of numbers for a compilation that tries to tell a story is difficult, as a great deal of Sondheim’s work is show-specific. However, the choices in this piece work very well, apart for a few pedantic quibbles regarding the occasional inappropriateness of certain lines. The programme contains a fine mixture of the familiar and lesser-known, including a handful from the score of the film, Dick Tracy. Even some of the well-known compositions are given a new interpretation, a good example being ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, a solo number for a nerdish loner to sing in adoration of a film star (Assassins), but here staged as a love duet that is delicate, intimate and moving. Also ‘Being Alive’ is elevated from a solo number to one that involves all five singers.
The production is blessed with five consummate performers who provide a veritable firecracker of a show that has the audience continuously roaring approval and applauding at length. With so many polished gems to choose from it is hard to pick a shortlist.
David Bedella’s rich voice is at its best in ‘Good Thing Going’, while predatory sensuousness simply oozes through ‘Hello Little Girl’. Damian Humbley’s performances make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up – his ‘Marry Me a Little’ is exquisite. Caroline Sheen not only delivers knock-out numbers such as ‘Money’, but has a nice comedic touch too. Her ‘Lovely’ is a joy which continues when Dee counters with a reprise laced with sarcasm. The pair of them get together for more fun with ‘There’s Always a Woman’. Not to be left out of the comedy stakes, Daniel Crossley steps out of his role as the onlooker to give a tour de force version of ‘Buddy’s Blues’ – a number totally irrelevant to the ‘story’, but who cares?
The delectable Dee does not disappoint her legion of fans and is seen at her comic and suggestive best in ‘Everybody Ought to have a Maid’. She also scales two twin Sondheim peaks with consummate ease – the breath control needed for the tongue twisting ‘Not Getting Married Today’ is mastered and the words delivered with clarity. She tweaks ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ a little, thereby stamping her own mark on a number often overshadowed by Elaine Strich’s version.
Acknowledgment must be given to the contribution made by the on-stage band of young musicians, led by MD Theo Jamieson, whose playing enhanced but never overshadowed the singers.
Readers may also be interested in: Tell Me On a Sunday – St James Theatre