More than a decade ago, I saw my first Chicago storefront-produced musical. It was the swinging Burt Bacharach tuner Promises, Promises, produced by a little theatre group called Porchlight Music Theatre. Porchlight has been on my radar since then, and while their shows over the years have been usually well-produced, they've often seemed a little, well, generic. But since Michael Weber took the reins as the new artistic director, he's promised us "American musicals. Chicago style."
If this smart and sophisticated production of Putting it Together is any indication of what else is in store, I'm delighted to say it seems Weber, with his succinct mantra in mind, has injected Porchlight with a much-needed point of view.
This Stephen Sondheim revue is a tricky show to stage. The paper-thin plot hinges on an uncomfortable cocktail party in some upper-class Chicago loft condo, where the hosts (a svelte McKinley Carter and dashing Adam Pelty) toss around passive-agressive barbs while their younger and much less sophisticated guests (Aja Goes, making a stellar professional debut, alongside a surprisingly effective Michael Reckling) desperately attempt to keep up appearances. Hearts are broken, withering glares are exchanged, and Sondheim's lyrics flow as freely as the booze.
The entire show relies on a consistent tone, excellent music direction and, above all, carefully measured performances. If not done right, the show can come off a hammy, heavy handed bore. Thankfully, Porchlight's production, under the leadership of director/choreographer Brenda Didier, hits all the right notes.
Things start off strong when our host for the evening, the immensely likeable Alex Weisman, works the audience, making comical references to other Sondheim productions in the area (sample line which earned a hearty laugh from the opening night crowd: "Oh, and then there's 'Follies,' which started rehearsals today at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Yeah, it's about old people singing loudly while their younger counterparts dance in the background.") He then launches into "Invocation and Instructions," a witty patter tune from The Frogs that outlines theater behavior dos and don'ts (mostly don'ts). From there, we're treated to gems from Company, Into the Woods, Follies, (a large dose of) Merrily We Roll Along and more.
Because it's Sondheim we're dealing with, the material they have to work with is showstopping stuff, but the cast contains their performances within the context of the play, never reaching for a "star" moment -- unless it's earned. Such as Carter's blistering "The Ladies Who Lunch," which is performed following an eye-popping outfit change. And I'd completely believe Carter, as the attention-seeking hostess, would change her outfit at the midway point of her own cocktail party.
The score truly shines in this production, and you can thank Austin Cook's first-rate music direction for that. This is party due to his carefully measured bossa-nova friendly arrangements, which pour from a sexy jazz trio (Cook on piano, Matthew Sitz on drums and Sam Flip on bass) yet never overpower the intimate space or performers. But it's also thanks to Didier's inspired choice to make the band a fully integrated part of the party. (And, I'm not gonna lie, Cook isn't a bad fellow to look at. It's clear why Carter, as the lady of the house, would keep him and his grand in the main living quarters.)
Do yourself a favor and see this classy, 100-percent Chicago production.
"Putting it Together" plays through October 16 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. More info here >