mon 14/10/2019

Putting It Together, St James Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Putting It Together, St James Theatre

Putting It Together, St James Theatre

Better than Broadway: Sondheim comes up newly minted in a sleek compilation

Crisp hostess: Janie Dee puts it together Mike Eddowes

“God,” wrote Stephen Sondheim, “is in the details.” Of course, he didn’t actually coin the phrase but throughout his published collections of lyrics he cites it as one of his three guiding principles. But to witness detail you need to be up close. Last seen on Broadway in the 1,058-seat Barrymore Theatre, Putting It Together felt overblown and strained. In the 312-seat St James Theatre, its strengths – the delights of a deftly interwoven selection of 32 Sondheim songs – leap into focus thanks to a quintet of deliciously detailed performances.

Unlike Side By Side by Sondheim, the much copied revue that ran in the West End for two years, this dispenses with the songs-linked-by-narration format. Instead, Sondheim and Julia McKenzie fitted existing songs into a new scenario of smouldering marital mayhem at a chic cocktail party encapsulated by its set-up number, the sardonic “Rich and Happy” from the original version of Merrily We Roll Along.

Much to the chagrin of crisp hostess Janie Dee – who, with David Bedella, forms the seen-it-all older couple echoing the expensively dried-up marriage of Ben and Phyllis in Follies – the effortlessly younger Caroline Sheen arrives. Singing “Lovely” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum (“Winsome, what I am is winsome/Radiant as in some/dream come true”) she seizes the attention of not just her partner Damian Humbley but both Bedella and waiter Daniel Crossley. 

The format initially feels arch, but once battle-lines are oh-so-elegantly drawn, the evening, like the material, hinges on an entertaining mix of surface sophistication and underlying tension. The trick pulled off by director Alastair Knights and musical director Theo Jamieson is their joint understanding that Sondheim’s material needs precision but not overplaying. Audiences are always more engaged by discerning subtext than being hit over the head with it; similarly, the highly prevalent wit shines brightest when, as here, it's unforced. 

This isn’t just a case of keeping “jazz hands” at a minimum. The performers spend two hours handling taut, sung descriptions of seduction, revenge, pain and regret without falling into the trap of pay’n’display. There are occasional slips - the slow tempo on the sublime duet “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music robs the song of its sad inexorability - but, for the most part, the material gleams.

Daniel Crossley in Putting It TogetherOne of the evening’s many pleasures is the chance to hear rarities. Dee and Sheen in particular have a ball politely harpooning insults at one another in “There’s Always a Woman” cut from the flop Anyone Can Whistle: “She almost looks human/It must be the lighting.” 

Although the women get the choicest material, the men seize their opportunities. Humbley releases the rich and powerful top of his voice for an ironically full-blooded “Marry Me a Little”. Bedella tones down his trademark zeal to duet neatly on the world-weary “Country House” from the London production of Follies and, from the same show, Crossley brings the house down with a virtuoso take on “Buddy’s Blues” (pictured above left).

The latter, however, points up the main problem. Despite Crossley’s terrific turn, the highly specific lyrics make little sense divorced from their context. Similarly, there’s every reason why the Wolf in Into the Woods should sing to Red Riding Hood, “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.” As a chat-up line, it’s a bit of a stretch. And only those who know Sunday in the Park With George will get the joke of these characters being physically trapped in “It’s Hot Up Here”

Indeed, it’s Sondheim fans who will gain the most from the evening. But the highpoints –  pretty much the whole of the more fluid second half including Dee making every word count in the neurotic tour-de-force “Getting Married Today” – mean that even newcomers will find flavours to savour in this tasty assortment.

  • Putting It Together at St James Theatre until 1 February
The evening, like the material, hinges on an entertaining mix of surface sophistication and underlying tension

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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