If you’re looking for a well-performed musical diversion, albeit one that lacks a plot structure, Yale Cabaret’s “Putting It Together” offers this kind of distracting distraction.
A collection of songs from various Stephen Sondheim productions, the show was compiled by Sondheim himself into a new work for cabaret-style theater. It includes no dialogue, relying instead upon the songs to form a story based on five characters. This leads to a disjointedness and ambiguity in the plot — or lack thereof — though the variety of songs spectacularly exhibits the performers in all their vocal and theatrical versatility.
The musical complexity of Sondheim’s work proves easy for this gifted cast. The actors have decidedly mastered the difficult lyrics and harmonies the composer is notorious for, and Rebecca Levi ’07 does a brilliant job supporting their vocal performances with her beautifully fluid piano accompaniment.
Jim Noonan DRA ’06, the director of the show who also plays the role of Man #1, deserves praise for his creative use of the cabaret. The production takes place on a small elevated stage in-the-round, with an aisle on each side, and the actors do an impressive job of playing to all sides of the space. The intimate setting of the Yale Cabaret Theater is ideal for this production, where audience members can sit so close to the singers that it feels like a personal performance.
“Putting It Together” begins with a hysterical “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” delivered by the mysteriously billed Man #3 (Blake Hackler DRA ’06).
Hackler brings an energy to the stage and a vitality to his performance that instantly commands the audience’s attention. Requesting that the audience refrain from disruptive behavior ranging from singing to farting, his “Invocation” smoothly transitions into the show’s title song and “Rich and Happy.”
In addition to Man #3, we now have the similarly anonymous (and seemingly misnumbered) Man #1 (Noonan); his wife, the aptly titled Woman #1 (Emily Dorsch DRA ’07); and (of course) Man #2 (Joe Gallagher DRA ’07) and Woman #2 (Lisa Birnbaum DRA ’07). The characters are apparently all wealthy socialites attending a cocktail party celebrating Noonan and Dorsch’s 25th wedding anniversary.
The disjointed action begins when Dorsch catches Noonan seducing the young and pretty Birnbaum (“Hello Little Girl”), prompting her to vent her marital frustrations (“My Husband the Pig”). Dorsch’s performance is perhaps the most subtle in the production, yielding a more nuanced — though not less comic — character. In “Getting Married Today,” Dorsch’s hilarious recreation of her (first) wedding day is nothing short of hysterical.
In the meantime, Gallagher finds himself in his own romantic entanglement. Noonan tries to set his friend up with Birnbaum (“Have I Got a Girl For You”) and then the two men discuss their passion for pursuing the opposite sex (“Pretty Women”) before a newly assertive and desirous Birnbaum enters and makes it clear to Gallagher that he’s the one she wants (“Sooner or Later”).
Birnbaum’s sudden transition from naive ingenue to lustful vixen in less than five songs is one of the more implausible points of the show, but her dynamic flexibility makes her seem like a natural in both roles.
During the lovers’ various spats, Hackler provides commentary on the action with songs like “Buddy’s Blues,” which though undoubtedly one of the best performances of the show, is also fairly irrelevant. At this point, the audience is confused as to whether Hackler is a party guest, an omniscient narrator, an imaginary character or some combination of the above.
The challenge of the show lies not in the qualities of the performances or the entertainment value — both of which are in plentiful supply — but rather in the lack of plot cohesion and clarity. In fact, Hackler comes closest to acknowledging this problem when he describes “the plot / (of which there’s not a lot)” in his “Invocation.”
The show is carried by its small but tremendously talented cast, all of whom have the opportunity to play with a wide range of different characters and vocal styles. The structure of the production lends itself to showcasing the performers’ skill and versatility, causing viewers to forgive and maybe even forget the lack of familiar characters and comprehensible storyline.
Given the nature of the inherently discombobulated show, “Putting It Together” is as put together as can be expected.