A Funny Thing Happened to Sondheim Again

Another Stephen Sondheim revue of greatest hits! At this rate, our musical poet of urban angst is fast becoming the cerebral equivalent to The Three Tenors .

Putting It Together , starring Carol Burnett at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is a retread of the 1993 Sondheim evening starring Julie Andrews at the Manhattan Theater Club, which was also called Putting It Together . You’d think they would have got it together by now. And there you would be wrong.

The material in the two shows is basically the same-Mr. Sondheim’s songs have been loosely strung together from his musicals Sunday in the Park With George, Follies , Company and more. Taken out of context, his celebrated existential disenchantment-or good old-fashioned sourness-still remains ill-suited to a jolly revue, but let that pass for the moment. The new “concept” has been developed from shaky to shaky.

The 1993 version gave us a cast of five sophisticated urbanites who seemed to be attending a Manhattan cocktail party in order to sing 30 or so bittersweet songs about failed relationships. There was an older, disenchanted married couple, a younger, characterless unmarried couple, and Christopher Durang looking uncomfortable in a cummerbund as a sort of puckish Greek chorus. The concept did not work well. The feeling was that they should have abandoned the clumsy plot device, which made no sense, and turned the show into a concert version. On the other hand, there had already been lots of Sondheim concerts.

The new-millennium-approacheth version of Putting It Together , which has been directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, gives us a cast of five sophisticated urbanites who seem to be attending a surreal Manhattan cocktail party in order to sing 30 or so bittersweet songs about failed relationships. There’s an older, disenchanted married couple, here called the Wife (Carol Burnett) and the Husband (George Hearn), and a younger, characterless unmarried couple known as the Younger Man (John Barrowman) and the Younger Woman (Ruthie Henshall). Having fun so far? There’s also the fifth cast member known as the Observer, who observes, and is played by Bronson Pinchot as a sort of puckish Greek chorus in a perky little bow tie. At certain performances, Kathie Lee Gifford will perform the role of the Wife and, naturally, my one regret is that I shall be out of town that day.

This radical change in concept from the original version is so imaginatively brilliant that no writer wishes to receive credit for it. He is the Anonymous Writer. But the concept does not work well. The feeling is that they should have abandoned the clumsy plot device, which makes no sense, and turned the show into a concert version. But I am in danger of repeating myself.

Mr. Sondheim’s cocktail of discontent is one thing. Our flagging sense of any emotional involvement in the cold, clean proceedings isn’t helped by the usually inspired sets of Bob Crowley. The remote, quasi-surreal designs of empty rooms, soulless cubicles, neon tubes and miniature chairs do not evoke the welcome mat. It is all too self-consciously arty-and Art with a capital A is the one thing Mr. Sondheim, of all introspective intellectuals, seems perversely anxious to avoid at all cost.

It is the strangest thing: This is the Sondheim show that disclaims all responsibility for Stephen Sondheim. Just before the curtain goes up, Mr. Pinchot, who plays our friend, the Observer, appears in the aisle of the Barrymore, but not as the Observer. The Observer is dressed as the Usher. He’s pretending to be a real usher, without much success. But what he’s doing is a peculiar stand-up routine explaining how this is all really going to be fun . A little joke is made about Kathie Lee Gifford giving Carol Burnett the wrong directions to the theater, a gag that strangely fails to bring down the house. The high seriousness of Mr. Sondheim’s renowned musicals is sent up, too. Even Mr. Sondheim Himself. What naughtiness! “Deep down,” says the defensive usher in disguise, “even his friends are afraid that he’s going to be cerebral, difficult, complicated, wordy. And at dinner, he is.”

But not, the faux usher is desperately reassuring us, here. Nothing is cerebral, difficult, complicated, or Sondheimian wordy, or anything but fun, here at the Barrymore with Carol Burnett. Life is beautiful! Everything is beautiful! In other words, my friends, relax with a paradox-Sondheim Lite.

As the irreverent lyric to the opening number from “The Frogs” goes: “Please don’t fart/ There’s very little air/ And this is art.”

An iffy witty ditty, but the intentions are dispiritingly clear. Do not be troubled by songs that may appear to be on the Sondheimian sardonic edge, or a wee bit despairing in their urbane misanthropic view that life sucks. Mr. Sondheim does not bring on the downs. He’s really a laugh riot.

Carol Burnett is a born clown. Worldly cynicism and disappointment are not to be found in her warm heart. There is no hidden subtext, no half-measures in her generous talent. She would not accept a proposal to “marry me a little,” as the Sondheim lyric goes. Wary commitment, a sense of bruised distance, isn’t her game. The star does well (and mugs well), but her entire comic persona couldn’t be more different from Mr. Sondheim’s brittle disenchantment.

If truth be told, Ms. Burnett is in the wrong show. But then, so is Mr. Sondheim. Her reading of that battle cry to soused loneliness, “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company , nevertheless hits the nakedly raw center. Her “Not Getting Married Today,” the neurotic howl of terror from a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and marriage, is wonderfully funny-the one song in the show (also from Company ) that might have been written for her.

The rest is a mixed bag, with George Hearn (the star with Angela Lansbury of Sweeney Todd ) glumly off-form. Even a party piece as sure-fire as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from Mr. Sondheim’s early A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fails miserably to ignite, as if it’s being performed in virtual reality. The duet between Mr. Barrowman and Ms. Henshall, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is blandly delivered without any sexual tension or nuance, yet it was originally the spooky duet between John W. Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme in Assassins .

Mr. Barrowman is a pretty face, bearing a slight resemblance to Tom Cruise. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. He sings sweetly, without understanding, I’m afraid. Ms. Henshall, a star in England who recently appeared here in Chicago, seems to be still in Chicago, what with the fixed smile, the short skirt and the flashing. She oversells a song whatever the song, taking no prisoners with the anodyne “More” from Mr. Sondheim’s movie score for the forgotten Dick Tracy . The appealing Mr. Pinchot, the Observer, deserves a much better break than this.

And so do we. But don’t be too surprised if in the year 2006, Putting It Together is back with us again-with a new concept, of course. It will be about five sophisticated urbanites who gather at a clambake in Baltimore on Groundhog Day to sing 102 bittersweet Sondheim songs about failed relationships. There’s a sour married couple, the Bickersons, to whom every day is a little death, a younger anonymous couple, Nameless and Nameless, merrily rolling along to no avail, and an outsider now known as Misery, who’s not getting married today, O.K.?