Review: Putting It Together, St James Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Never has such a star-studded celebration of composer extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim been so well executed, and so well received, as in this production of Putting It Together, writes Ed Theakston.

Stephen Sondheim is, particularly within the theatre community, a much loved but some might say under-performed composer. Co-created by producer Cameron Macintosh, Putting It Together is a revue; a celebration of the best of the best of Sondheim’s writing, within the loose setting of a cocktail party.

The first act takes a couple of numbers to really hit its stride, but once it does, the foot is never taken off the gas. The show bears all the hallmarks of Sondheim construction; a heavy helping of cynicism, plenty of wit and lyrics more perceptive and astute than many of his contemporaries across a spectrum of human emotion. Sure to have your sides splitting one moment and have you stifling tears the next. If the show is running in the first act, it truly flies in the second with number after flawless number. The repurposing of some songs is joyfully surprising, and the more faithful renditions of those songs we know are inspiring.

The show has a stellar cast of five, each with resumes longer than your arm. Daniel Crossley is outstanding as the host-come-bartender-come-referee at the centre of the show. He opens the show with humour, and the glint in his eye never disappears. His versatility is clear, and his astonishing performance of the wordy, energetic ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from Follies is worth the ticket price alone; quite frankly awe-inspiring.

David Bedella and Damian Humbley are also impressive in their roles, each shining in their own rights. Bedella’s warmth and charisma are infectious, and Humbley has one of the most exceptional voices on the West End.

It must be said, though, that the women manage to steal the show. Janie Dee and Caroline Sheen are perfectly matched while brilliantly different. Sheen portrays her character’s youth and charm with depth and effervescence. Janie Dee owns the stage in a dry, sardonic, remarkable performance. Particularly in the patter song ‘Not Getting Married Today’ from Company, she stands out as singularly extraordinary and with comic timing to envy. She often is tasked with singing some of the better-known numbers, and yet manages to absolutely make them her own, bringing something new to each song. When the two women come together in the catty duet ‘There’s Always A Woman’ they bring the house down in fits of laughter. Sheen and Dee give show-stopping performances.

The six-piece onstage band, under the direction of Theo Jamieson, is note perfect. It is a demanding score but the band seems to make light work of it, which must surely be the highest compliment one can give. The arrangements are memorable and the sound full; it is a treat to hear Sondheim played to such a high standard.

Director Alastair Knights has found sensitivity and humour in some most unexpected places, rendering some of what you think you might know about Sondheim entirely new. Paired with Matthew Rowland’s strong choreography, it is a sexy, tight and well-constructed piece of theatre.

The show includes some of the best-loved Sondheim songs, but even more revelatory are those perhaps lesser known numbers. For those who are ardent Sondheim fans, this show is a must. For those who are less familiar with his work, or have no previously been fans, it is absolutely worth it.

Putting It Together is a show dripping with class, and is certainly not to be missed.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 1st February 2014.
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