Here's an idea that doesn't work: Take a bunch of songs from some good and not-so-good musicals, rethink their purpose and then string them together with a new concept. Last spring, the folks at San Diego's Old Globe Theater tried a modified version of this formula using the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Here’s an idea that doesn’t work: Take a bunch of songs from some good and not-so-good musicals, rethink their purpose and then string them together with a new concept. Last spring, the folks at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater tried a modified version of this formula using the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Perversely titled “What the World Needs Now …,” the show sank like a stone. “Putting It Together,” based on the work of Stephen Sondheim, succeeds far better, but that’s largely because the material is superior, the talent exemplary and the production team nonpareil.

It’s also because Sondheim’s songs, whatever their context, are self-standing mini-dramas of great sophistication. In this show, they vaguely serve to chart the progress of an upper-middle-class marriage. The middle-aged couple, Amy (Carol Burnett) and Charles (John McCook), are monied and disaffected. He looks at other women, she at other men. Their crises are mirrored by, and sometimes even occasioned by, Barry (John Barrowman), a handsome young associate of Charles’, and Julie (Susan Egan), Barry’s flirtatious date, and later fiancee. Explaining it all, and even jumping into the action with alarming regularity, is the aptly if uninspiredly named Observer (Bronson Pinchot).

There is, however, not much need for explication here, as these four characters do little more than stare out and bemoan their fates. Of course, it’s easy to be enchanted, moved and even enthralled when the bemoaning comes in the form of Sondheim’s bittersweet ballads and cleverly rhymed up-tempo numbers.

Unfortunately, the thin narrative thread that runs through “Putting It Together” hinders rather than helps matters. Unlike a traditional revue, in which a loose assemblage of songs allows audiences to shift sympathies and continually reimagine the performers, this show compels them to accept a quartet of poorly defined archetypes. It doesn’t work, and the songs (from no fewer than 11 musicals, one movie and an unproduced TV special) often seem forced fits.

And yet there are compensations. Burnett, of course, is a performer of star quality who alternates between the comic and tragic with rare grace. Only Elaine Stritch can lay greater claim to “The Ladies Who Lunch,” for instance, which Burnett sings with knowing cool until an anguished cry forces itself from her lips at song’s end. Contrast that with her marvelous comic turn as a frantic bride in “Not Getting Married Today,” which is “Together’s” only true showstopper.

Naturally, the others in the cast can’t quite compete. Yet Egan is a performer of great promise, with a sharply focused soprano, unforced girlish charm and sound comic instincts. Her rendition of “More” (from the film “Dick Tracy”) is beguiling in the extreme.

The men prove their worth, too, with McCook a strong, if not vocally arresting, presence, and Barrowman a smooth-toned, good-looking addition, though superficial in wrenching songs like “Marry Me a Little.”

In such company, the goofy Pinchot makes for fine contrast. He is a gifted physical performer and, as he proves in his very funny version of “Buddy’s Blues ,” a surprisingly capable song-and-dance man.

All five performers are aided by Eric D. Schaeffer’s snappy direction. And Bob Avian’s engaging, easygoing dance steps keep things visually interesting. So do Wendall K. Harrington’s series of projections, which, along with Howard Harrison’s lighting, amplify the scene created by Bob Crowley’s abstract set design. An eight-member band under Jon Kalbfleisch’s pumped-up direction pays appropriate homage to Sondheim’s excellent scores.

Putting It Together

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 750 seats; $47 top

Production

A Center Theater Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County presentation, in association with Cameron Mackintosh, of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Based on an idea by Julia McKenzie and Sondheim. Directed by Eric D. Schaeffer; musical staging by Bob Avian.

Creative

Musical direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, Bob Crowley; costumes, Bob Mackie; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Jon Gottlieb; projections, Wendall K. Harrington; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; stage manager, Susie Walsh. Opened, reviewed Oct. 25, 1998. Runs through Dec. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS.
Musical numbers: "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," "Putting It Together," "Rich and Happy," "Do I Hear a Waltz," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Lovely," "Hello, Little Girl," "My Husband the Pig," "Every Day a Little Death, " "Come Play Wiz Me," "Have I Got a Girl for You," "Pretty Women," "Sooner or Later," "Bang!" "Country House," "Unworthy of Your Love," "Could I Leave You," "Entr'acte," "Back in Business," "It's Hot Up Here," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "The Road You Didn't Take," "Live Alone and Like It," "More," "There's Always a Women," "Buddy's Blues," "Good Thing Going," "Marry Me a Little," "Not Getting Married Today," "Being Alive," "Like It Was," "Old Friends."

Cast

Amy - Carol Burnett
Charles - John McCook
Barry - John Barrowman
Julie - Susan Egan
The Observer - Bronson Pinchot
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