NEW YORK — PUTTING IT TOGETHER Musical revue by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Julia McKenzie. At the Manhattan Theatre Club.
The members of the heavyweight cast of the new Stephen Sondheim revue, "Putting It Together," don't all come out at once. Rather, they emerge one at a time, and the anticipation builds for the moment everyone has been waiting for.
Julie Andrews's entrance is one of the glorious events of this theater season. Absent from the New York stage for more than 25 years, her presence is invigorating, and the only disappointment is that she is not back on Broadway, where more than a few fortunate Manhattan Theatre Club subscribers would get to see her. The quality that has always made her stand apart, the steeliness that was contained in such sunny characters as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp, is more powerful than ever.
This American production of a show originally produced in Britain by Cameron Mackintosh doesn't skimp when it comes to the rest of the cast either: Stephen Collins, Christopher Durang, Michael Rupert, and Rachel York round out the ensemble. Yet this group, performing the music of such an important theater composer, should produce an evening far more satisfying than this one is. The problem is not with the performances as much as it is with the fussiness of the staging and the nature of the conception.
This is the third major revue devoted to Mr. Sondheim, and it was created by director Julia McKenzie and Sondheim himself. Rather than simply present the songs, they have devised a concept in which the performers are the guests at a sophisticated dinner party. The songs are presented as minidramas, with Collins and Andrews as squabbling spouses ("Country House"), while Rupert and Collins lasciviously pursue maid Rachel York ("Everybody Ought to Have a Maid").
The second half is structured around a party game in which the guests are given random personal questions that prompt songs as replies. Although this sometimes works, more often the results seem forced. The artificiality and overly busy musical staging by Bob Avian detract from the charm of the evening.
All the performers have their shining moments. But it is Julie Andrews who imbues the evening with theatrical magic. Her two big numbers, "Could I Leave You" and "Getting Married Today," offer stark contrasts in tone, but whether she is dealing with the powerful emotionalism of the former or the comic hysteria of the latter, she is never less than transcendent.