When Stephen Sondheim’s Passion opened at Signature Theatre in 1996, New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who’d been disappointed with the show on Broadway, came to see what Eric Schaeffer and his little company that could had done with it.

“Sometimes,” Brantley wrote in an ecstatic review the next day, “you can’t see what’s wrong with a show until it’s put right.”

Wonder what he’d say about Putting It Together, Signature’s current “direct from Broadway” Sondheim revue? Schaeffer originally staged the show to hats-in-the-air raves in Los Angeles with Carol Burnett headlining, but for the New York transfer, the notices were tepid for everything but the star. Why the difference? Some suggested bicoastal rivalries. Others noted that producers should have known better than to open an intimate, five-character revue with songs lifted from their original contexts to delineate characters at a cocktail party just a week after Kiss Me Kate, a splashy revival that was bound to make it seem, by comparison, to be struggling to fill a 1,300-seat Broadway house. Whatever the reason, the show didn’t click.

Here in D.C., you can hear it start clicking—big time—about a third of the way through Act 1. It happens during a sweet little number called “Lovely,” in which Sherri L. Edelen, playing a vapid social climber who’s come to the party looking for a mate, chirps, “Lovely….All I am is lovely….Lovely is the one thing I can do.” That final verb gets the same laugh it did in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum way back in 1962.

But a moment later, when Edelen steps back from the spotlight, where she’s been singing to us, and addresses the lyrics to the party’s three males, you suddenly notice the baleful glare she’s getting from party hostess Jane Pesci-Townsend, and the song starts to operate in a new context. Edelen flirts, bats her eyes, and finishes by tracing curlicues on one guy’s chest and tickling another’s ear. She gets her round of applause, but by the time she does, you can’t take your eyes off Pesci-Townsend, a mountain of a woman rapidly going volcanic, who very briefly wraps herself in every last shred of dignity she possesses and then lets fly, barking, purring, and shrilling the tune back at the pretty young interloper, curdling it with the experience of a woman who’s been there, done that, and wouldn’t be caught dead in the T-shirt. The force of her rendition—accompanied by a well-placed hip thrust—is enough to knock Edelen right off the stage.

At that point, it’s clear that Broadway’s loss is going to be D.C.’s gain, and except for a couple of slack moments in the second half, the production’s inventiveness never lets up. The staging’s not heavy on flash and sizzle, as it reportedly was in New York, where it had star power (Burnett and Bronson Pinchot), hydraulics (stools rising from the floor), and choreography (a full-blown tango where now there are head snaps). But that’s probably all to the good. Stars tend to get in the way of content, and this show means to be more than a parade of songs. It’s trying to have an actual plot, about two couples at a boozy party, one just dating (Edelen and Ty Hreben), the other unhappily married (Pesci-Townsend and Bob McDonald). An impartial Observer (Jason Gilbert) is also on hand, to serve drinks, act as sex object, and offer context in one-word scene-setters (“Innocence,” “Seduction,” “Desperation”) that, in all of about 50 syllables, somehow steer us from convivial greetings to boozy angst to reconciliation.

Schaeffer has proved in earlier Sondheim outings that he not only gets the emotional undercurrent in the composer’s songs but also can subvert it to new contexts at will. His staging of Assassins, set in an art gallery rather than in the carnival shooting gallery prescribed by the script, made that troubled, quasi-epic musical much clearer than it had previously been, and his intimate reading of Passion really did reinterpret the work.

Putting It Together’s older-couple/younger-couple, party-till-you-drop framework—sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with music—requires him to rethink songs created for specific characters in other shows, a task he’s tackled with both flair and sensitivity. Because Sondheim glories in emotional dissonance, the director has plenty to work with in such angry numbers as “My Husband the Pig” and “Could I Leave You?” (from A Little Night Music and Follies, respectively), but I’d never have imagined he could find a way for Gilbert and Pesci-Townsend to divide up the lyrics from Forum’s “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and turn that deliriously sexist ditty into a hilarious declaration of feminist power. Nor that “Unworthy of Your Love,” a song sung in Assassins by near-missers John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme to their muses Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, could be shorn of its murderous irony and delivered with haunting loneliness by Edelen and Hreben.

Production details are simple but clever—even the lighting cues get laughs—and with a full-voiced cast backed up by a sparkling quartet under the direction of Jon Kalbfleisch, the show sounds terrific from the first downbeat. That downbeat, incidentally, comes after a comic monologue (penned by Signature’s resident playwright, Norman Allen) that is replete with in-jokes—”At tonight’s performance, the part usually played by Jane Pesci-Townsend will be played instead by Lloyd Rose”—and leads seamlessly into a patter number offering instructions on theatergoing decorum (“Please don’t fart/There is very little air/And this is art”). The song was written for The Frogs, a show designed to be performed in a swimming pool (note to Arlington County authorities: Find one, and turn it over to Schaeffer ASAP), and its many admonitions—not to hum along when you recognize a tune, crinkle candy wrappers, and so on—went blithely unheeded at the performance I attended.

Identifying shows and recognizing when songs are being reinterpreted will be fun, of course, for those who know the Sondheim canon by heart. But I attended with a friend who’d never seen a Sondheim show, and who professed to hate musicals, and he found himself both caught up in the emotions on display and surprised at how fully he felt he knew the characters by evening’s end. I confess to surprise at many of the same things. For a revue, Signature’s Putting It Together has a startlingly clear emotional trajectory and a lot more punch than one might expect. It’s also a lot of fun. CP

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