Thursday, July 19, 2007

review of *Putting It Together*

at CdA Summer Theater through July 29

In *Putting It Together,* the Stephen Sondheim playing Coeur d'Alene through July 29, director Roger Welch has devised a clever bit of opening patter for Christian Duhamel as the Observer, explaining among other things why Duhamel's filling in on the role and making a not-so-coy reference to the popularity of CdA's *Full Monty* (with Duhamel pulling a red thong out of his cummerbund). It was Duhamel's best moment of the entire show, right off the bat.
After Duhamel warms up — and warns — the audience with the "Invocation" from *The Frogs,* the entire five-member cast emerges in formal wear for the title tune, which is taken from *Sunday in the Park With George* (though it's never entirely clear how the difficulties of creating an art work correspond to the difficulties involved in maintaining a marriage). The choreography at this point seemed uninspired, even sloppy.
Michael McGiveney's asymmetrical, starlit set provides surfaces to project lighting designer Joel Williamson's designs, nicely changing the mood from number to number.
As the Husband, Mark Cotter often sounded breathy, as if (understandably) laboring under the requirements of Sondheim's rapid-fire lyrics.
The first of the evening's several highlights arrives with Krystle Armstrong's rendition of "Lovely" from *Forum.* She was batting her eyelashes so much, I could feel a breeze in the eighth row. Armstrong used her ballet skills to demonstrate just how "winsome" she was feeling.
Cotter wasn't especially wolfish during his "Hello, Little Girl" pursuit of the Cute Young Thing from *Into the Woods,* but at least that comic number set up a nice contrast to the evening's second highlight, the duet of Judy Ann Moulton as the Wife and Armstrong's Young Woman in "My Husband the Pig / Every Day a Little Death" from *A Little Night Music.* Isolated in spotlights, both women lamented the sacrifices they'd made to endure relationships with men.
With its hip thrusts and faces pulled toward bosoms, with its pats on the bum and peeks underneath aprons, the "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" duet between Moulton and Duhamel turned up the sexy-comic barometer. As the Wife made clear that she wouldn't at all have a cabana boy around the kitchen, several subtle (and not-very-subtle-at-all) sexual innuendoes probably bestowed enough cleverness on this exchange to obscure the distance it had traveled from how it's originally put to use in *A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.*
Cotter and Dane Stokinger (as the Young Man) achieve good two-part harmony on the dual tributes to feminine pulchritude, "Have I Got a Girl for You" and "Pretty Women." Stokinger's puppy-dog eyes over beautiful women were effective precursors to the romantic passion he'd show in later numbers.
Armstrong practically out-vamped Madonna in a couple of numbers from *Dick Tracy.* In the first, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," her high kicks and rhythmic leaning toward Stokinger created some nice erotic tension. Later, in Act Two, Armstrong got nearly orgasmic as she out-lusted the Material Girl in a paean to greed called "More."
Choreography took precedence over music in "Bang!" — a number cut from *A Little Night Music,* sung here by Duhamel, and meant to embody sex as a kind of military siege. Armstrong was spending so much time bending over backwards and running her hands over herself that her tango of lust with Stokinger stole focus (properly) from Duhamel's singing.
Stokinger and Armstrong performed the love duet "Unworthy of Your Love" so powerfully and romantically that it was startling to recall that in *Assassins,* this same song is sung by a couple of deluded idolators and twisted lovers, Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley.
Moulton and Cotter are at their best in "Country House" from *Follies,* in which a longtime married couple grasp at ways to save their crumbling relationship: Do they need a trip abroad, a shrink, a dog? Finally the lyrics circle back to the suggestion of a material possession with which they started: Maybe they just need a second house. The oscillating exasperation and affection was made evident here.

There appeared to be an unusually high number of walk-outs after intermission. And it's true that, even in just a two-hour show with a 20-minute interval, after awhile many of the Sondheim songs blend together into indistinguishability. Yet there had been several high points in the first half of CdA's *Putting It Together,* and there were still a couple left in what was admittedly a less compelling second act.
The cocktail-party action and focus on the jaded, often-skirmishing older couple and the less experienced younger couple that we see in Act One fades from view later on.
A couple of comedic sequences seem gratuitous — "Buddy's Blues" in particular. As delightful as Duhamel is in playing both halves of a bickering couple (and letting his voice get all screechy for the shrewish wife), this is a number that's clear inserted just to lighten the mood. And Moulton's "Getting Married Today," despite the dialogue inserted to justify it, simply works better with a younger, more harried, more frantic prospective wife, as in the original of *Company.*
In "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Moulton transitions nicely from outer-directed sarcasm (at all those fashionable matrons who try to keep up appearances) to inner-directed self-disgust. After selling an unsettling song, she stomped off the stage to applause.
The last seven songs are all from either *Company* (1970) or from *Merrily We Roll Along* (1981). In "Marry Me a Little," Stokinger begins quietly, seated on the floor, almost without affect. By the time he's kneeling before Armstrong, we sense the push me/pull me vacillation his character feels toward the whole idea of commitment. And then the entire ensemble delivers a beautiful five-part rendition of *Company*'s concluding anthem, "Being Alive.*
Sondheim's revue brings us not happily-ever-after, all-troubles-forgotten. Instead, it suggests the deep worth of moments of romance and connection, grasped out of the morass of mistakes and self-defeats that we have inflicted on ourselves in the past — and will continue to do, with musicals like this as one of our few consolations.
Sondheim's assemblages don't always solve the problem of sameness, and there are bland patches in this show. Similarly, the CdA quintet of singers aren't up to the vocal and dramatic demands of each and every number.
But the CdA *Putting It Together* still presents several sequences that will enrich your capacity for introspection.

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