Perhaps it is the surprising lack of comedic moments that one expects from a Broadway musical starring quintessential funny lady Carol Burnett, who easily captures the audience with strong vocal chops and brilliantly sardonic interpretations of Sondheim’s lyrics. But we already know that comedy and Carol Burnett go hand in hand; why should the audience be forced to wait patiently through countless dark ballads for lighter moments that are few and far between?
Perhaps the “why?” behind this show has something to do with the effort of Putting It Together to put together a plotline. The show begins when we are plopped in the middle of a cocktail party full of “movers and shakers,” all the better to follow the private lives of The Wife (Carol Burnett), The Husband (George Hearn), The Younger Woman (Ruthie Henshall) and The Younger Man (John Barrowman). They are all observed and commented upon by The Observer, played by Bronson Pinchot. While each star has certain moments to shine — and shine they do — one is still left less-than-enchanted by evening’s end.
What’s wrong with the show is not really the songs that have been picked — the Sondheim tunes are put together well enough to bear, sometimes with new meaning given to his familiar lyrics. Particularly receptive to new interpretation is “Bang” (from A Little Night Music), “Unworthy Of Your Love” (from Assassins), and “Hello Little Girl” (from Into the Woods). Such purple songs beg for variety, however, if only to lead the audience out of the dark woods where the show tends to sit.
As for Burnett, possibly America’s greatest living female clown, even she has to sing the blues. She sails at various times through “Every Day a Little Death” (also from A Little Night Music), “The Ladies Who Lunch” (from Company) and “Could I Leave You?” (from Follies), revealing a dark, bitter side that one doesn’t expect from the woman who induces such laughter from “Getting Married Today,” the famous patter song from Company.
Henshall, who is another star extraordinaire, seems to grab each moment she has and squeeze every ounce of juice from it, resulting in a flawless flow of presence and style. Her delivery of even a simple line like “I hate this room” (from a taut Sunday in the Park with George lyric) draws chuckles.
Meanwhile, the dependable George Hearn is a great balance for Burnett, and is especially strong when he reminds The Woman of their “Good Thing Going,” yet another winsome ballad, this one Merrily We Roll Along.
Rounding out the two couples is handsome John Barrowman, who shines when he asks The Younger Woman to “Marry Me A Little,” a passive-aggressive Company tune, and later with Hearn in “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.
That leaves Bronson Pinchot as The Observer who, while delightfully funny in his own way, seems mismatched among these musical theater icons and Sondheim songs.
Curiously, musical director Paul Raiman brings songs to life more effectively when they are solos than when they are group numbers. On stage, the group performs on Bob Crowley’s unique, multi-level set with some interesting projections by Wendall K. Harrington. Howard Harrison’s lighting, however, seemed too dark — the perfect metaphor.
On opening night, the thunderous applause clearly showed a supportive audience thrilled to see Carol Burnett on stage again, making her first appearance in a Broadway musical since Fade Out-Fade In in 1964. And one can’t help but applaud the great talents that share the stage with her. But the question remains, why another Sondheim revue? There’s simply a missing piece.
At certain performances, Kathie Lee Gifford steps in for Carol Burnett.