Ripping it (your heart) apart: A Sondheim revue

September 8, 2011

If the test of success for a Stephen Sondheim show is whether you leave the theater in a state of utter despair about human relationships, then Porchlight Music Theatre's season-opening Putting It Together is the Platonic ideal of Sondheim shows. This revue of the composer-lyricist's work has no plot but its five performers nonetheless manage to enact all stages of human connection and, especially, disconnection. Alex Weisman narrates in one-word sentences ("Seduction." "Desperation.") while his four co-performers, a younger couple and an older one, illustrate with songs from throughout his career. 

Putting It Together is appropriate for Porchlight's first show under the artistic direction of Michael Weber. Director Brenda Didier and Music Director Austin Cook (also a charming performer at the piano) have organized the piece to showcase both the powerful voices and the powerfully understated musical acting style which are Porchlight's hallmarks. Weber himself has directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins, more or less the alpha and omega of Sondheim works, so he knew whereof he was choosing.

It would be faster, wouldn't it, if I said, "Like the production, hate the show"? But it wouldn't be quite accurate. It's just that Sondheim, stripped to music and lyrics without any moderating book, really shows himself to be equal parts misanthrope and misogynist. The only two choices for women are young bimbo and old bitter. McKinley Carter handles the latter role brilliantly, as she rocks the house with her version of "The Ladies Who Lunch," but I resent the stereotyping, which is enhanced by skin-tight costumes on both women. 

The men are almost equally predictable, as Weisman announces at the opening: "The theme is, men can't commit." But at least they occasionally get to take a break from coupling to think about achievement or the larger meaning of life or something. Adam Pelty brings just the right combination of ferocity and ruefulness to the role of seductive and then disappointed older man. I was less enthused about Michael Reckling's callow youth: though his tenor is irreproachable, he seems always to be trying to be in some bigger show. Maybe that's a comment on the foolish ambitions of youth, but in the intimate Theater Wit space it comes across as overdone. And Weisman just doesn't get enough to do.

So take distillate of Sondheim and give it a strong if not perfect production. Who'da thunk that a fan's reaction would be, "Is that all there is to Sondheim?" 

Yours very sincerely, Miss Peggy Lee.