5:40 PM CDT, September 7, 2011
The 35-year history of Stephen Sondheim revues dates to 1976, when "Side by Side by Sondheim" mined the musical riches of shows like "Company," "Follies" and "Anyone Can Whistle." But Sondheim has kept on writing, of course, which inevitably dates revues of his work.
That fate may yet befall the newest (and best) authorized Sondheim revue, "Sondheim on Sondheim," which premiered in New York in 2010 and has yet to be seen in Chicago. That show, which contains extensive video of Sondheim at work, puts the focus firmly on the artist and his biography. The 1991 revue "Putting It Together" — a piece that predates some of the great shows but still catches the essence of its man — puts the focus on his incomparable lyrics.
Those lyrics pop very nicely in Brenda Didier's classy and swishy little Porchlight Music Theatre production at Theater Wit. The singing — from McKinley Carter, Adam Pelty, Aja Goes, Michael Reckling and Alex Weisman — varies in quality and complexity of expression, but it's all good enough for you to relax in its basic competence and start musing on various Sondheim lyrical profundities, such as how the line "vary my days" in "Being Alive" is a singularly brilliant argument for the pursuit of romantic partnership, however traumatic the search or complex the relationship.
"Putting It Together" has always been a revue that encourages flexibility of staging, and Didier uses that freedom well.
The conceit here is that the couples in the show are at a rather depressing and dysfunctional party in an upscale West Loop loft.
I would not say that Didier fully follows those narratives and points of view, although it's tough to combine the internal traumas of songs like "Every Day a Little Death" or "Could I Leave You?" with a naturalistic night spent among the bare brick and halogens of West Madison Street. And Didier, thankfully, does not push the play-making.
If you like your Sondheim dark, Carter certainly delivers on songs like "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Carter, a longtime skilled player in Chicago theater, is just now becoming the right age for what she does best.) And Pelty's "Being Alive" is both warm and emotionally honest, as Pelty is throughout.
In the role of the young, unnamed femme fatale of these proceedings, the glamorous Goes makes a promising debut, impressing on some, if not all, of her numbers in a tricky assignment that ranges from the vampish "Sooner or Later" from "Dick Tracy" to the comedic (or not so comedic) "Not Getting Married Today" from "Company."
The most interesting performance of the night comes from Reckling, a counterintuitive young performer with a lush voice, a slightly unsettling demeanor and a very compelling ability to switch back and forth between baring his soul and covering up his feelings. That, of course, is an essential skill in the interpretation of Sondheim.
Reckling and his fellow actors are accompanied by a hot little band, featuring the handsome and expressive Austin Cook on piano (Cook also is musical director).
Cook's very contemporary presence helps Didier escape some of that tired revue nomenclature. Weisman, who is quite appealing, delivers some witty lines freely adapted from the old revue linkage, but you also get a good, healthy sense that these are characters floating along in romances and tragedies of their own creation and manifestation.
All in all, this is a step up — in terms of both the quality of the singing and the risks being taken — for Porchlight. Sophistication and complexity are achieved.
I'll put that another way. To borrow from another of those incomparable Sondheim lyrics, you can sense people "trying to perform, but not audition." No shame there. That crucial distinction haunts so many of us. Especially Sondheim lovers.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $38 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org
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