Salt Lake City Weekly

Theater Review: Pioneer Theatre Company's PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Sondheim musical revue delivers some show-stoppers, and a reminder of the greatness of his full musicals

Scott Renshaw Mar 6, 2023 10:11 AM
BW Productions
The cast of Pioneer Theatre Company's Putting It Together
There’s something both fitting and ironic about making “Putting It Together” the title song for a musical revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. On the one hand, a lyric from the song notes that “art isn’t easy,” even though Sondheim managed to make it look that way for more than 60 years of his professional career, as demonstrated by the remarkable lineup of tunes on display here. On the other hand, it’s a song about how great art doesn’t just involve having the right pieces, but about figuring out how to make them fit—which is something that comes into focus when those tunes are removed from their original context and asked to stand more or less on their own.

Putting It Together isn’t exactly a “greatest hits” package; there’s no “Send In the Clowns” to be found, or “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, for example. Instead, Sondheim and original director Julia McKenzie shaped the songs into a loose narrative involving two couples—one a long-married pair (Judy McLane and Nicholas Rodriguez), the other newly involved (Cayleigh Capaldi and Brent Thiessen)—commented upon by an omniscient observer (Tyrick Wiltez Jones). As a result, the selected numbers are ones that fit best into commentary on relationships, gender roles and the hard-earned wisdom of reaching a certain point in life.

Several of the songs work perfectly well as stand-alone pieces—and not coincidentally, those examples provide the highlights in Pioneer Theatre Company’s production. Also not coincidentally, those numbers are ones where the comedic component is at the forefront. McClane nails the breath-control gymnastics involved in the mile-a-minute lyrics of the ode to cold feet “Getting Married Today,” and the sardonic observation of certain social castes of women in "Ladies Who Lunch." Capaldi, meanwhile, gets a terrific solo showcase in the Dick Tracy deep cut “More,” bringing a playful sexiness to a celebration of never being satisfied. Especially for those less familiar with the Sondheim oeuvre, Putting It Together provides a wonderful introduction to his uniquely dense lyrics, and musical compositions that consistently defied conventions.

Yet it’s also the case that some of the songs in Putting It Together just can’t work nearly as well absent the framework of the productions from which they originate. Into the Woods’ “Hello Little Girl” gets reimagined as a tale of more metaphorical kind of predatory male behavior, rather than the literal kind expressed by the Big Bad Wolf, and the light-hearted presentation feels a bit jarring. Similarly, the snippet of “Being Alive” that becomes part of this show's finale can’t possibly capture the devastating emotional power of Robert’s dawning self-awareness from Company. With Putting It Together’s cast representing archetypes rather than characters, there’s only so much that the songs can do at telling a story, rather than simply being gorgeous examples of craftsmanship.

Maybe there’s a level on which that’s enough, especially when talented performers are offering up these songs; Capaldi in particular is an absolute show-stopper whenever she’s at center stage. But this is also a reminder of why listening to a shuffled playlist of favorite showtunes isn’t the same as experiencing the shows they come from. Putting It Together provides an enjoyable reminder that there are actually few theatrical experiences more remarkable than a full Stephen Sondheim musical, where you can find not just all the great songwriting, but an appreciation for how good he was at taking those songs, his themes and his characters, and putting it together.