Theater Review: Sondheim Revue Surprises Not Just With Hits, But Depth

A toast: To any theater company capable of convincing its audience to forget that the characters of Putting It Together are merely cardboard and its plot is little more than generalized situation. Those behind WaterTower Theatre’s startlingly deep and enormously entertaining staging of Stephen Sondheim’s revue-style show achieve just that.

Culling from Sondheim’s catalog of brilliant theater and film work and expanded loosely from Side by Side by Sondheim, a 1976 revue that paired his songs by theme, Putting It Together attempts to knit its songs together with a basic premise: A wealthy, older couple throws a cocktail party overseen by a chameleon-like narrator and attended by two young lovebirds.

The archetypes are relatable, the setting familiar—and stunning, thanks to a streamlined set by Rodney Dobbs and gorgeous, nimble lighting by Jason S. Foster—but why, exactly, should we watch these five people examine romance, sex, and friendship through cerebral song and flimsy plot for two hours?

Because Diana Sheehan, John Campione, Sarah Elizabeth Smith, Bob Hess, and Alex Organ are simply fascinating, that’s why.

A quintet that works this well together is rare, but rarer still is an ensemble that retains its individual star power. From Sheehan’s brittle, simmering take on “Could I Leave You?” (Follies) to Organ’s go-for-broke rendition of “Marry Me a Little” (Company), Campione’s winking “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” (The Frogs) to Hess’ wistful “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along), and Smith’s irrepressible ode to greed with “More” (Dick Tracy), each cast member seizes his or her solos with expert command.

The group numbers and duets are just as engrossing. Not everyone within the audience may be familiar with the shows or plots these tunes spring from, but thanks to the committed work of the actors and director Terry Martin, it doesn’t matter. Watching Sheehan chase the much-younger Campione around the stage in a gender-reversed “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum makes it even naughtier. And while witnessing Organ and Smith confess their all-consuming devotion to each other in “Unworthy of Your Love” from Assassins, it’s not necessary to know that the song is originally sung to Hollywood and serial killer crushes by two failed presidential assassins.

Rather than coming off as a by-the-numbers concert or perfunctory cavalcade of nostalgic hits, this Putting It Together is a tight showcase of incredible talent and focus—it’s what last year’s Smokey Joe’s Café aspired to be but never quite reached. Everyone looks great, sounds better, and delivers emotionally satisfying performances. I’ll drink to that.