"Putting It Together," the revue of lesser-known Stephen Sondheim songs now at the Barrymore Theatre, is the Broadway debut of local director Eric D. Schaeffer, who has gained his national reputation with his sizzling direction of Sondheim at Arlington's Signature Theatre, of which he is artistic director (his latest triumph there is "Sweeney Todd"). If he's never made you shudder and wonder, you may be perfectly satisfied by the slight and easy charm of his work on this somewhat misbegotten show.
Schaeffer's star is the redoubtable Carol Burnett, who is both terrific and miscast. In a chic Bob Mackie outfit whose top has a diamond-shaped cut-out to show off her gracefully firm-muscled back, Burnett looks great, and she definitely carries the show. She does fine work with her songs, particularly when she can invest them with her chuckling, anarchic humor, and she invests the more disillusioned numbers (i.e., most of them) with wry worldliness.
The difficulty is that Carol Burnett is just too sane for Sondheim. In the original production, Julie Andrews played the same role and revealed an unexpectedly sullen sensuality, a bruised and angry sexiness. Burnett is a scrapper--if life tried to bruise her it'd get a punch in the nose back. She doesn't take herself seriously and is without self-pity, disastrous attitudes to bring to suffering-longing-furious love songs. Her brisk irreverent freshness makes Sondheim's songs, sophisticated as they are, seem adolescently overwrought, even a bit silly.
The rest of the casting is uneven. George Hearn, an old Sondheim hand, is avuncular; Ruthie Henshall (who starred in the London "Chicago"), razzle-dazzle sexy; and John Barrowman, colorless. At the start of the show, Bronson Pinchot warms up the audience with a few jokes, some of which are pretty good (he explains the morals of a few of Sondheim's shows: for "Sweeney Todd" it's "Stress is the number one killer in the workplace"). Then he slips comfortably enough into his musical role as The Observer--who might as well be called The Odd Stage Presence--often using a funny penguin-like walk I would have thought was impossible for such a slender man to pull off.
An attempt has been made to give the show some kind of shape by having it take place at a party where a Man (Hearn) and Wife (Burnett), a Young Woman (Henshall) and a Young Man (Barrowman), plus the impish Observer (Pinchot, in the role originated by Christopher Durang) all get together and sing about how lousy love is.
As a way of organizing the songs, the party conceit is so flimsy that it shreds almost as soon as the show gets started. One thing "Putting It Together" demonstrates is how organic Sondheim's musicals are. They're all of a piece, an aesthetic ecosystem, and you can't uproot songs you think are pretty and clump them all together and get anything like the effect those songs have in their respective shows.
Sondheim is about as far from a generic composer as you can get. You can put "Some Enchanted Evening" most anywhere--revue, supper lounge, elevator--and it will work pretty much like it always does. But "Pretty Women," from "Sweeney Todd," though its tune is sweet, was written as a duet for two men, one of whom is planning shortly to cut the other's throat. Without that twisted contextual undertone, the song is simply incomplete. And even songs that work better than this as stand-alones make you appreciate how much better they were as part of a fully conceived musical whole. "Putting It Together" is a poor representation of the talents of our most brilliant chronicler of infatuation and its discontents.
Putting It Together, directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, based on music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Set design, Bob Crowley; lighting, Howard Harrison; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; sound, Andrew Bruce/Mark Menard; musical direction, Paul Raiman; musical staging, Bob Avian.
CAPTION: Carol Burnett and George Hearn in local director Eric D. Schaeffer's Broadway debut.
CAPTION: Let's revue: George Hearn, Carol Burnett, Bronson Pinchot and Ruthie Henshall.
CAPTION: Bronson Pinchot as The Observer.