In Pieces

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I’ve seen some of the most memorable Chicago productions of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces at Porchlight Music Theatre (Company in 2003, Sweeney Todd in 2004, Assassins in 2007) but I have been dismayed by the middling quality of its recent forays into the oeuvre of the greatest living American musical theater composer, an inconsistent and somewhat bloodless Into the Woods and a horrifically amateurish Pacific Overtures, one of my top Sondheim musicals of all time.  I was starting to wonder where the Porchlight artists’ deft understanding of Sondheim’s intricate, complex, multi-layered reflections on human nature and relationships had gone. Well, wherever it took a tropical island vacation at, I’m glad it is back in full, rested, reinvigorated force at the theater’s season-opener and the first show of the company’s new Artistic Director Michael Weber, Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together, a revue of Sondheim’s early work.  This show is an energetic, classy, extremely well-performed production for adult theatergoers – my dear Porchlight, I’m sure Chicago’s rabid musical theater queens like myself are glad to have you back.

Putting It Together, devised by Sondheim and the show’s original director, Julia McKenzie, has a plot as flimsy as a linen summer dress at the Hamptons in the middle of August – two couples, one older and married, the other younger and un-, plus a ambiguous male observer, are at a cocktail party that slowly, tensely goes awry as the romantic entanglements of the protagonists unfold.  But who cares about plot in a revue which includes some of the most deliriously perfect Sondheim songs that talk about love and relationships from Company, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Follies, and his Academy Award winning work on the film Dick Tracy?  Director Brenda Didier wisely showcases the glorious songs through unfussy stage blocking and fast-moving scene transitions.  She is ably abetted by Musical Director Austin Cook and his three person band (ingeniously seated onstage and acting as if they are guests at the cocktail party as well), playing Sondheim’s incomparable melodies with clear-eyed understanding and minimal flourish (and with lots of gusto for the Act II opener “Back in Business” from Dick Tracy). 

Since this is a revue, it’s the musical performances that should necessarily shine, and Didier’s five person cast is, in a word, dazzling.  Chicago musical theater veterans McKinley Carter and Adam Pelty as the older couple are empathetic, mature, credible as battle-scarred spouses, and sing gorgeously, wondrously.  Carter’s rendition of the cruel, bitter, agonizing “Could I Leave You?” from Follies which closes the first act is particularly outstanding – a multi-faceted musical theater aria from a woman scorned, but who still loves her unworthy husband deeply and unconditionally. You can see the rollercoaster of emotions on Carter’s face as she gets through this particularly tough song.  Aja Goes as one half of the younger couple makes a pretty impressive Chicago theater debut – sexy, smoldering, seductive, manipulative, but also a little confounding in her performance of “Sooner or Later”, which evokes too closely Madonna’s performance of the song during the 1991 Academy Awards.  I think Goes’ “Not Getting Married Today”, the most difficult among Sondheim’s compositions, imho, is technically impressive, so kudos to her, but I kinda missed some of the riveting blend of neurosis and real anxiety in the best performances of this song I’ve seen in the past (for example, Alice Ripley’s incomparable version in the 2003 Kennedy Center production of Company).

The most astounding member of the cast though for me is Michael Reckling who gives a fresh, charismatic performance as Goes’ boyfriend.  I have never seen him in a show before, but, boy, does he have buckets of stage presence and an emotionally complex singing voice.  I love his performance of “Marry Me A Little” from Company which is both captivating and somewhat untrustworthy- that this good-looking boy, despite what he professes to you right now, will, at some point, break your heart.  I think that intellectual shading, that ability to create a fully-fleshed character in a three-minute Sondheim song is the quality that differentiates the best Sondheim interpreters (Ripley, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Michael Cerveris, John Barrowman) from, well, the rest of the people who attempt to sing Sondheim and do him justice (Hmm…Catherine Zeta-Jones? Some performances in recent, unnamed Sondheim productions in Chicago?).  And then there is Alex Weisman, a true rising superstar of Chicago theater.  After bowling me over in his Jeff-winning turn in The History Boys and his most recent role in the divisive Mary, Weisman conquers musical theater with a vigorous, infectious, showy turn as the ambivalent and ambiguous Observer (who seems to have a little crush on Reckling’s character – or does he?), sort of a combination The Glee Project contestant, All About Eve-like ingénue, and a musical Truman Capote. He is terrific in “Invocations and Instructions to the Audience” (from The Frogs) which opens the show, and Sidetrack Showtunes campy (and I mean that as a compliment) in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (from A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Forum).

I think if you come to Putting It Together to enjoy Sondheim songs performed lushly and passionately, you’d have a grand, gay, old night out on the theater town.  The show contains the pitfalls of a revue – the context in which the song was originally sung has somewhat changed (for example, Company‘s “Being Alive” is an internal hymn to embracing your need for someone to love, not a song of reconciliation; “Unworthy of Your Love” is the obsessive-stalker song in Assassins, not a song to get engaged by), and some songs feel they’re out of place (“It’s Hot Up Here” from Sunday in the Park with George isn’t really a song of romance, although I’m sure it fits the revue’s conceit in which the loft has become quite a hothouse of romantic complications).  But this is top-notch entertainment, a show to enthusiastically recommend to your discerning friends and neighbors.

Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together is at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, until October 16.  It’s a wonderful start to the Chicago fall theater season.

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