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THEATER REVIEW : 'Putting It Together' in N.Y. With Sondheim Songs : Julie Andrews heads a cast of five in a loosely constructed show filled with Sondheim favorites. She makes a successful return after an absence of 30 years.

April 05, 1993|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — The frustrated hordes who could not get tickets to "Putting It Together" are not alone. We exclusive few who managed to get into the limited run at Manhattan Theater Club are frustrated too.

But--eat your hearts out--we're frustrated that the intimate Stephen Sondheim revue didn't go on maybe five or six more hours, that Julie Andrews and company didn't sing every favorite song from every brilliant Sondheim score, that we can't rush back and see the thing again tonight.

Before we seem impossibly smug about one of those New York privileges, however, we should add that, although we could have sat there all night, we have quibbles--actually, quite major quibbles--with the concept and execution of the two-hour anthology, with how "Putting It Together" has been put together.

Andrews, not on stage here for more than 30 years, is wonderful in her first-ever Sondheim experience--underutilized, perhaps, but elegant and game and extremely smart about how to manage her clear, pliable voice at this stage of her career, which means she doesn't push and she doesn't belt and she treats the meaning of these witty and heartbreaking songs like the grown-up literature they are. And no mikes? Bliss.

Vocally, this is an eccentric, but not boring, quintet. In truth, only three of the five--Andrews, Rachel York and Michael Rupert--are legit singers who can get as much from the music as they can from the subtext. Stephen Collins, who plays Andrews' wandering husband, is just a respectable singer, but he has a sweetness that helps his character get away with being mean to Andrews without the audience storming the stage for revenge.

And it's very possible that audiences who don't cherish Christopher Durang for his wicked plays and satiric cabaret act might wonder what this Mephistophelean gadfly is doing there, unattached as a sort of piano-playing emcee. Even Andrews, every so often, looks at him and asks, bemused, "Who are you?" So the ensemble's a bit rough, but the chemistry is promising.

If only Julia McKenzie, the English director who co-devised the evening with Sondheim after a Cameron Mackintosh tryout at Oxford, had not felt obligated to arrange the songs loosely around a sour little pseudo-sophisticated plot, with antediluvian sexual politics, at a fakey Manhattan cocktail party where men wear tuxedos and everyone drinks too much champagne.

Sondheim's work, which got a bad rap early on as misogynist, always has had an equal-opportunity ambivalence. Everyone , of any gender, can be sorry-grateful, regretful-happy, scared of commitment, afraid of being alone.

But in "Putting It Together," McKenzie (star of Mackintosh's mid-'70s London revue "Side by Side by Sondheim"), and, presumably, Sondheim himself, give us three predatory men who reject the older wife (Andrews) and chase the blond bimbo (York)--who actually starts out as the servant so the guys can sing, leering, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Men are cads; women are bitter victims. This mentality is not just emotionally stunted, but a betrayal of the I-need-you-go-away empathy in songs meant to make us laugh and think at the same time.

After intermission the party runs down and the guests play a sort of truth-or-dare game about their relationships, which is really just an excuse to take turns in the spotlight. This is a pleasure, and a relief.

Then there is the physical production, which, despite its impressive pedigrees, is always just a bubble off. We know MTC has insisted this is a little show, even with the Mackintosh imprimatur. But we didn't expect it to be a little skimpy and a little tacky, as if Robin Wagner designed the winding staircase ramp of this Manhattan penthouse without actually having seen one, and as if Theoni V. Aldredge makes dresses for Vanna White, yes, with pumps dyed to match.

When we aren't luxuriating in Sondheim's virtuosic interior rhymes, his unpredictable structures, and the prickly accompaniments by the small, sensitive onstage orchestra, we sit there wondering if the creative team might actually be spoofing the sort of brittle New Yorkers who only exist in very old-fashioned revues.

The show includes some of the most popular songs from "Company," that irresistible apotheosis of relationship panic, circa 1970, and "Follies," that bittersweet twist on Ziegfeld show tunes, 1971, and a few darkly knowing waltzes from "A Little Night Music," 1973--without, thank you, Sondheim's only overdone jukebox hit, "Send In the Clowns."

Otherwise, this is mostly a shelter for stray songs, a chance to rescue "Sooner or Later" from "Dick Tracy" and Madonna, the opportunity to hear Andrews sound just like Mary Poppins while pointing a gun at Collins in the eerily jaunty "Gun Song" from the short-lived recent "Assassins."

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