Stage Struck Review

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“Putting it Together” – Sondheim sings at Sierra Madre

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse's "Putting it Together." [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Putting it Together.” [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The iconic American musical composer of the last 50 years, Stephen Sondheim, has also been the subject of five different “anthology” musicals – that is, compilations of songs written for other uses strung together to celebrate the song writer, often in the guise of a story-like theme. One of these offers a chance to hear many songs which might otherwise sit on a shelf: 1993’s “Putting It Together.” Ostensibly about couples arguing at a party, it serves as a chance to hear music written for television as well as for less-than-successful Broadway shows, all scattered between signature songs from Sondheim’s greatest works: “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and the like.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering up “Putting It Together” in its small space, made even smaller by the set it shares in repertory with the children’s musical “Einstein is a Dummy.” In this particularly intimate space, details matter. Here, performers range from good to excellent, the timing is solid, and everyone puts their all into the production. The humor shows, as does the pathos and the signature irony and bitterness, all to the accompaniment of an impressive grand piano.

Ostensibly, one couple – a successful man of means and his long-time society wife – are hosting a party to which a young climber and his pretty young girlfriend arrive. An ambitious caterer looks on and weighs in on occasion while the couples form, explode, re-form and redefine. In reality, the plot notwithstanding, it’s a festival of known and lesser-known Sondheim, and that is a treat all its own.

The five-person cast throws their all into the work. Several have done the show before elsewhere, and that added familiarity with what is often very difficult music cannot but help. Kurt Andrew Hansen gives the philandering party-giver an air of ownership as he sings everything from the predatory “Hello Little Girl” to the romantic “Do I Hear a Waltz”. Kristin Towers-Rowles, as his wife, vibrates with attitude, and pulls off two of Sondheim’s most often sung – pieces, “Getting Married Today” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while making them very much her own. For songs so thoroughly attached to their initial performances, this is particularly impressive.

LIkewise, Chris Kerrigan brings a pathos to “Marry Me a Little” and a kind of panic to “Unworthy of Your Love” which are very much his own. As his date, Rachel Hirshee has fun being the pretty young thing, and has a lovely time with the more air-headed songs, like “More” and “Lovely.” Mike Irizarry, as the caterer and observer, sings with the most character definition, but is comparatively quiet-voiced next to the other four. Still, his mildly crazed “Buddy’s Blues” stands up well.

Director-choreographer Cate Caplin keeps the piece going, and provides the kind of movement which keeps the show from becoming just a concert. Jake Anthony’s musical direction paces things as they should and blends tones on the many duets in powerful ways. The thing looks polished and is often a lot of fun. There are a few issues with balance, but those do not keep the overall feel from being very attractive, particularly for such a small stage.

Still, truth be told, it is the music that wins the day. Sondheim is, for some, an acquired taste, but once one has acquired it the strong, sometimes dark, often insightful lyrics offer a specific spin on the human condition it is worth being reminded of. By the end you may find ourself (as I did, admittedly, for one or two pieces) going back to find out where they came from and why they are not heard more often.

“Putting It Together” plays evenings, while on weekdays and Sundays the matinees are productions of the children’s musical. It’s a nice balance, as Sondheim’s often very adult subject matter will provide limited enjoyment for kids.

What: “Putting It Together” When: Through March 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sunday March 22, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays March 21 and 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre: a classic comedy brings modern insights

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in "6 Rms Riv Vu" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in “6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

There comes a point, with older works of theater, when they stop being “dated” and start being a window on another time. When that happens, they can provide insightful views of the differences and most engagingly the similarities between the work’s era and our own. This is obvious with truly classic works – Shakespeare, Moliere, even Oscar Wilde. In our fast-changing world it also rings true for plays and musicals only a few decades old.

As example, the production of “6 Rms Riv Vu”, Bob Randall’s Tony-winning play from 1972. Now in a fine production at Sierra Madre Playhouse, it looks back at the people whose lives overlapped the societal mores of two distinct periods, who are thus forced to find balance in the midst of very mixed messages. As ethical values continue to shift today, it offers a chance to stop and think.

The play – most definitely a comedy – centers on two people, Anne Miller and Paul Friedman, who find themselves locked in a rent-controlled New York apartment they’ve both been sent by spouses to check out and possibly rent. As time passes, they begin to share vulnerabilities: their sense of incompleteness in their married lives, their sense of disquiet at their own lack of adventure, and fairly soon their mutual attraction.

What makes the play worth watching is what they do with the information they glean, as played out by a somewhat young, but interesting cast. Jeremy Guskin feels natural as Paul: a bit geeky, a bit henpecked, a bit startled by his own bravado. Lena Bouton brings to Anne that settled housewife aura, but with the undercurrent of resistance to patronization and frustration at her own “goodness” showing through.

Lynndi Scott all but steals the show as the obtuse lady across the hall. Bob Rodriguez gives the perfect “operating on autopilot” maintenance man – the instigator of the leads getting stuck in the first place. In cameo roles, Kristin Towers-Rowles vibrates with energy as Paul’s feminist wife, Craig EcEldowney hums with paternalistic attitude as Anne’s businessman husband, and Jull Maglione and Albert Garnica provide the play’s bookends as an expectant couple also checking out the apartment.

Director Sherri Lofton gives the play a relaxed, yet intense pacing and enough movement to keep an essentially two-person piece from devolving into a static debate. John Vertrees’ set design makes the small SMP stage look like a reasonably-sized apartment, which is quite a feat. The costuming by Naila Aladdin Sanders pretty much nails the polyester double-knit look of the era. The authenticity greatly enhances the experience.

As a result, “6 Rms Riv Vu” has much to recommend it: it’s funny, well acted, well produced, and has something quite specific to say, which is still worth listening to. It’s also funny in the way of the best comedies of that era: jokes at just the time when the tale would otherwise become painful, yet still making a “truth” available under the laughter.

This is the start of a new era for the Sierra Madre Playhouse, as they embrace a new board and a new artistic director. The focus is obviously quality, and the shaking off of the “community theater” label. So far, so good

What: “6 Rms Riv Vu” When: Through September 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: (standard pricing) $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 children 12 and under (NOTE: general and senior tickets purchased in July for any performance between now and the end of the run will be on a special: $19.72 – the date of the play) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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