Against a set depicting urban buildings with puzzle-piece edges, something transformative took place at Colby's Strider Theater in February. The revelations came in the form of a fast-moving, nuanced production of Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together. In this version-whose narrative differed somewhat from the original's-Sondheim's songs illuminated stories of transcendent new love and devotions grown disenchanted, with lyrics sometimes melancholic and wistful, often witty and caustically perceptive, and occasionally corrosive.
Directed by Lynne Conner, associate professor and chair of the Colby Theater and Dance Department, the revue featured songs from such musicals as Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, and was staged at Colby to celebrate the composer/lyricist's 80th birthday.
It also represented the culmination of Conner's Jan Plan, an intense month of rehearsal that saw students frequently logging 12-hour days. In February four performances were presented under the musical direction of Paul Machlin, professor of music and the Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities, with the choreography of Daphne McCoy, teaching artist in theater and dance.
The original revue premiered in England in 1992 and on Broadway in 1999. Using songs but no dialogue, it explored the relationship of two couples. Conner decided that, for her purposes, some revision was necessary, so she created her own narrative-still without dialogue-involving five interwoven love stories.
A cast that included a pair of professional thespians provided a unique learning experience for the 10 student performers, “a kind of model for how a professional actor prepares a role,” said Conner.
For Becca Levenson '13, who played the daughter of a couple in the throes of marital disintegration, it was a chance for up-close observation. Everyone in the cast “developed a professional manner based on what we were seeing from Doug [Jabara] and Lauren [Sterling],” said Levenson, a double major in psychology and French, who has appeared with Powder and Wig, Colby's student theater group. That ranged from how the pros held themselves to the speed with which they prepared their roles to the way they moved about the stage.
Mastering Sondheim's lyrics and melodies proved a formidable task for the students as well as for veteran actors Jabara and Sterling. “The amount of lyrics that he compresses into a song is one thing,” said Sterling. “The other is that the instrumental orchestrations that sit underneath the melody don't support it at all.”
But audiences seemed blissfully unaware of the difficulty inherent in getting the hang of songs in which the rhythms run counter to the vocal lines. “It's really, really challenging,” said Sterling, “but it doesn't feel that way. It comes off as very easy and sort of soaring, lively, buoyant music.”