Carol Burnett and Stephen Sondheim are not, perhaps, a natural match. In the peerless variety show that made her a star, Burnett specialized in loopy caricature and vaudevillian shtick that are at several removes from the cool ironies that characterize Sondheim’s dryer brand of wit. But a comic genius is a comic genius, and in fact Burnett’s liberating touch provides much of the sparkle — and, more intriguingly, the heart — in “Putting It Together,” a sleek, more stylish Broadway reworking of the Sondheim revue from 1992.
The show’s Off Broadway incarnation occasioned Julie Andrews’ return to the stage after an absence of 30 years, and the new version is providing a similar landmark for Andrews’ longtime friend Burnett, who hasn’t appeared in a Broadway musical for more than three decades.
You’d never guess it: Burnett is in terrific shape, vocally and otherwise, and while “Putting It Together” is a surprisingly weightless diversion, given the dense textures of Sondheim’s oeuvre, it gives us a priceless opportunity to bask in the invigorating aura of a great performer.
Burnett’s co-stars — and by the end of the evening, you think of them as such — are nonetheless able talents in their own rights. Her romantic opposite in the show’s musical game of quadrille is Broadway veteran George Hearn (they are called the Husband and the Wife in the cast list, Amy and Charlie elsewhere).
They are joined at a party that sets the vague whisper of a narrative in motion by the Younger Woman, played by British firecracker Ruthie Henshall (lately Velma Kelly in “Chicago”), and the Younger Man, enacted by a young man of cleft chin and shiny tenor named John Barrowman.
The fifth performer, the impish and appealing Bronson Pinchot, introduces the evening with some patter and a genial “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” (from “The Frogs”), wittily rewritten by Sondheim for the occasion, replete with references to the show’s producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Pinchot, as the Observer, punctuates the emotional turning points among the central quartet with occasional single-word vocal subtitles: “Revenge,” “Seduction,” etc.
This being a romp through the mindscape of the man who virtually singlehandedly brought the Broadway musical into the age of anxiety, there are no pitstops at “Bliss” or “Satisfaction,” of course. Sondheim songs from some 13 works are woven together to suggest the brittle marriage of the older couple coming almost, but not quite, to grief when the husband’s eye strays toward the charms of Henshaw’s character.
A highlight of the first act is “Lovely,” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” in which the lively rapport between Burnett and Henshaw is first established. Henshaw, in flirtatious vamp mode, sings the song as a paean to her own not-so-modest charms; Burnett follows with a devastatingly silly impersonation of her every vocal inflection and carefree kick.
Their interplay, one of the evening’s real pleasures, is continued throughout the evening, reaching its apex in the deliciously vicious “There’s Always a Woman,” and it might remind you of the way Burnett performed so winningly with the female co-stars and guests on her variety show. This is a star who can fill the spotlight when necessary, but also knows how to graciously share the stage.
Henshaw is here revealed to Broadway as a performer of major gifts, who can suggest a cockney tart one minute, Julie Andrews herself the next. She’s all sultry languor crooning “Sooner or Later,” the rather bland torch song from “Dick Tracy,” and later savvily tackles the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of “More,” also from the film. There is more than a trace of mannerism in some of her singing, but the voice is an arresting, distinctive one.
The male half of this romantic quadrangle doesn’t make as strong an impression as the distaff one. Hearn relied more on interpretive finesse than vocal power at the performance reviewed (he was reportedly suffering a cold). He was at his best opposite Burnett, singing “Follies'” jagged “Country House.”
The various thrusts and parries of the song were tinged with an authentically chilling weariness. A capable singer, Barrowman is nonetheless most remarkable for his handsomeness — alas you can’t help thinking that Barrowman better personifies Calvin Klein’s Obsession than any of Sondheim’s.
Also handsome is the production, featuring a gorgeous set by Bob Crowley that’s a stylized X-ray of a Manhattan apartment building seemingly inspired by magazine art direction of the ’60s. Eames chairs of various absurd sizes sit in blank white chambers outlined in thick black bands and strips of colored neon. The various emotional hues of the songs are elegantly reflected in Howard Harrison’s colorful lighting.
The song selection will please some Sondheim lovers, and maybe exasperate others. The inclusion of four tunes from “Dick Tracy” (who knew there were four songs in “Dick Tracy”?) suggests that the composer, who has presumably had significant input, believes they have been underappreciated and underexposed. Despite accomplished performances here, however, that contention may not be shared by all his admirers.
The underlying problem is that Sondheim does not generally write songs — he writes shows. There is inevitably much lost when portions of his musicals are mixed and matched as they are here, though Eric D. Schaeffer’s slick direction avoids any seriously jarring changes of tone or style.
The party setting is cleverly chosen, but it also suggests the show’s essential defect: Too many of the musical numbers are like conversations overheard at a party that are merely the tips of emotional icebergs. They are intimations of dramas of greater and more gripping consequence that we are not privy to.
But Burnett, at least, banishes any thoughts of structural flaws when she’s spotlit center stage, delivering one of her several solo numbers. She always used her loopy, absurdist comic style to reveal the fears and follies of real human beings (as the hapless Eunice, in fact, she was so piteously sad it sometimes ceased to be funny).
Here the absurdity is used only to enliven and enlarge the inherent humor of “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Getting Married Today.” Elsewhere it’s just the songs’ humanity she projects, in the bitter “Could I Leave You” and the sad and wistful “Like It Was,” and she projects it with a power and gravity as surprising as it is thrilling.