You won’t find a more tuneful, sophisticated or better performed show around town than South Coast Repertory’s beautifully staged revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together.

Drawing its title from one of Sunday In The Park With George’s most famous numbers, Putting It Together puts together more than two dozen Sondheim classics to create an elegant two hours of song under the always brilliant direction of Nick DeGruccio.

Like 1976’s Side By Side By Sondheim, 1993’s Putting It Together serves up a veritable musical feast for Sondheim lovers. It goes its predecessor one better, though, by featuring an additional two performers, a wisp of a plot, and music entirely by Sondheim.  (The first revue included Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne tunes as well.)  Very little spoken dialog is needed for the words-and-music-by-Sondheim gems to tell the several stories which unfold during an evening of cocktails among friends. There’s the older couple (Harry Groener and Mary Gordon Murray) whose marriage seems on the verge of unraveling, a young man (Dan Calloway) in pursuit of an off-duty cater waitress (Niki Scalera), and a sexually ambiguous observer (Matt McGrath) with possible designs on the young man.

Over half the evening’s songs come from a quartet of Sondheim classics: Company, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.  Follies and the movie Dick Tracy get three songs each, with the rest coming from Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods, Assassins, and an opening number from The Frogs that will tickle the fancy of every live theater devotee.

But first a word about Tom Buderwitz’s breathtaking set, the kind of luxurious upscale Manhattan apartment that Rock Hudson used to call home in his romantic comedies opposite Doris Day.  With its elegant furnishings and textures and fully stocked bar, abstract canvases hung high above the living area, and a staircase winding up to a terrace with a panoramic view of the New York skyline, Buderwitz has created an abode even the wealthiest South Coast Rep donors might willingly trade their own for.

And now, back to that opening number.  The adorable McGrath begins the evening with The Frogs’ “Invocation And Instructions” (to the audience), which contains these delectable (and apropos) lyrics: “Don’t say ‘What?’ to every line you think you haven’t got. And if you’re in a snit because you’ve missed the plot (of which I must admit there’s not an awful lot), still don’t say ‘What?’” Pre-announcements have never sounded so good.

Soon after, the guests arrive, singing the title song and the first of five “Merrily We Roll Along” transitions. Waitress Scalera describes herself with Forum’s “Lovely,” sung in a Snow White soprano (and a uniform which somehow recalls the Disney heroine’s garb), prompting the gentlemen to opine that “Everyone Ought To Have A Maid.”  Scalera then moves into a sultry belting out of “Sooner Or Later,” her uniform peeled off to reveal a sexy blue cocktail dress underneath, Groener having invited her to stick around as a guest. 

Groener then turns wolf-in-millionaire’s-clothing as he attempts to seduce Ridinghood Scalera with “Hello, Little Girl,” prompting his wife, Murray to shoot back with “My Husband The Pig” (a song cut from A Little Night Music), which segues into an exquisite “Every Day A Little Death,” with Murray and Scalera duetting raw emotions on opposite sides of the stage.

In an attempt to divert Callaway’s apparent interest in Scalera, Groener sings the musical offer “Have I Got A Girl For You,” which causes the two men to reflect on “Pretty Women” in general, with the particular object of their mutual affection standing up behind them on the terrace overlooking Manhattan.

Groener and Murray sing about ways to get their marriage-on-the-rocks back on track in “Country House,” but the discussion’s unsuccessful outcome prompts a stunningly performed “Could I Leave You?” by the sensational Murray, ending Act One on a bittersweet but powerful note. 

The party begins to get more than a bit wild in the second act, with pot smoked, a woman’s hand inside a man’s shirt (not her husband’s), and the brandishing of a gun, the perfect cue for Assassins’ “The Gun Song.” Then come the party games, a kind of “Truth Or Dare” minus the Dare. Scalera is asked, “Who would you like to marry?”, inspiring the musical reply “The Miller’s Son,” the first in a series of Act Two solo showstoppers.  Callaway’s response to “Why aren’t you married?” is the anthem of bachelors everywhere, “Live Alone And Like It.”  When Groener is asked if he’s sorry he got married, he answers with (what else?) “Sorry-Grateful.”  McGrath responds to the question “Why aren’t you married?” with “I Could Drive A Person Crazy.” “What were you thinking the day you got married?” prompts Murray to sing “Sweet Polly Plunkett” (“I am a lass who alas loves a lad who alas has a lass in Canterbury”).

Putting It Together (the revue) puts a new spin on several of its musical numbers.  A Little Night Music’s “Now” (“Now, there are two possibilities: A, I could ravish her, B, I could nap”) is sung, not by Callaway, Scalera’s would-be seducer, but by interested observer McGrath, reading Callaway’s mind (or perhaps with thoughts of his own about Callaway). “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” sung in Company by a trio of Bobby’s girlfriends, here becomes a tour-de-force male solo for McGrath, with “I” replacing “You” in the title.  The same is true for Company’s “Getting Married Today,” with all three parts (from the operatic “Bless this day” to the tongue-twisting “Thank you all for the gifts and the flowers. Thank you all, now it’s back to the showers. Don’t tell Paul, but I’m not getting married today.”) in a single performance by Murray that evokes cheers.

The night concludes with four of Sondheim’s most powerful creations. Callaway sings (and acts) his heart and soul out in “Marry Me A Little.”  The two couples join voices in a thrilling four-part “Being Alive.”  Finally, as the sun rises on a Manhattan morning, Murray sings about longing for the past in “Like It Was,” with Groener responding with a nostalgic, affectionate “Old Friends.” 

DeGruccio first directed Putting It Together at the 99-seat Colony Theatre back in 1996 when he was, in the words of Travis Michael Holder, writing about the production for Entertainment Weekly, the Colony’s “emerging resident wunderkind.” The ensuing thirteen years have made DeGruccio L.A.’s preeminent musical theater director, the results of which can be seen in this exquisite 2009 big theater, big budget restaging.  The songs are Sondheim, the concept is Sondheim and Julia McKenzie, but the relations developed between the five performers on stage are all DeGruccio, whose contributions here make the difference between a good show and a great one.

The cast assembled here is, in a word, superb. Groener and Murray are two of Broadway and regional theater’s most accomplished triple-threats, and performers L.A. area audiences are always glad to welcome back to our stages.  The uniquely gifted McGrath’s career spans the proverbial “stage, screen, and television,” everything from bizarre yet oddly compelling The Black Rider to a personal favorite of mine, his sweet, moving performance in the movie The Broken Heart’s Club. Since his work in Paradise Lost: Shadows And Wings, MTG member Callaway has been a leading man to watch, with a long career of big romantic roles in his future.  The lesser-known (to L.A. audiences) Scalera brings a Broadway resumé and a piquant charm to South Coast Rep.  All five sing gorgeously.

In addition to Buderwitz’s brilliant scenic design, there are Soo Jin Lee’s elegant costumes, Steven Young’s dazzling lighting, and Drew Dalzell’s impeccable sound design, all of which make for an amazing looking and sounding production.  Musical director extraordinaire Dennis Castellano on keyboards leads a terrific four-piece orchestra which provides just the right backup to the onstage fivesome.

In Putting It Together, South Coast Rep has put together a couldn’t-be-better 2008-2009 opener.  In the words of Sondheim himself, the new theater season is off to a “Bang!”

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 

–Steven Stanley 
September 20, 2009
                                                       Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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