A refreshing take on Sondheim’s classic from the masters of musical theatre
The ultimate classic, from the master of musical theatre Stephen Sondheim - this was a big test for Hope Mill Theatre. They’ve built a strong reputation in the genre, but could they pull it off?
Set in an upmarket New York Apartment party, Putting it Together takes two couples and a commitment-phobe (all unnamed) to deliver a wonderful selection of Sondheim songs both lesser and well-known. Manchester, with its Library Theatre-led early adoption of his work, provides a fertile ground for new Sondheim explorers; the intimacy of Hope Mill Theatre, meanwhile, offers some fresh perspectives besides those of more established interpretations.
A cast of five talented performers take us through the party via a collection of songs put together by Sondheim himself and his biggest British performer-fan, Julia McKenzie. The lack of a substantial plot means there’s no obvious dramatic arc, just the exciting expectation of what will come next.
Andrew Gallo - party host, MC and commitment-phobe - opens the show with Invocations and Instructions to the Audience, before the couples establish their roles: one rich and weary, the other young and forging a path via lust to the potential of idealised love.
Press Night nerves probably accounted for the very few very minor early inconsistencies, but these are quickly left behind, and performance strength captivates. Following the mid-show applause, the cast returns more confident, more relaxed, and just as sharp. The second act moves from show-stopper to show-stopper, with occasional pauses for plaintive songs of hope or loss. Gallo excels with Buddy’s Blues from Follies, and Alex Cardell’s Marry Me A Little is gorgeous. Simbi Akande’s voice is beautiful but Lauren James Ray, as the more cynical and sardonic of the two women, has been dealt the strongest hand in songs: her Ladies who Lunch and rapid-fire Getting Married Today are obvious crowd-pleasers, demanding songs which any Sondheim fan will have stored in their memory from previous performers.
Not least among the obvious talents on display is that of Michael Webborn. With no orchestra, pianist Webborn provides the sole accompaniment and, as musical director, deserves much of the credit for the success of this show. Director Bronagh Lagan and choreographer William Whelton, one of Hope Mill’s originators, have made the most of the intimate theatre setting to allow a fresh and more detailed eye to the songs.
This production is yet another resounding confirmation that Hope Mill’s early success can continue to soar. The next question is which Sondheim can they conquer next. Can I put in a plea for A Little Night Music next year, with Pacific Overtures in 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics?
Putting it Together runs at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 24 November
Images: Phil Tragen