A Little Fright Music

Modern-day marriage can blister the heart. And nobody in American musical theater has explored this painful and often ruefully funny truth more completely than Stephen Sondheim. In an astonishing body of work that spans four decades, the composer has mapped out a lyrical topography of the loneliness of marriage. In the process, he's created some of the most acidic tunes ever written on such ordinary subjects as cold feet, hot sex, bachelorhood and the drop-dead sexual power of a pretty woman.

His 1992 revue Putting It Together splices together a sampler of his terrific tunes -- some from as far back as his 1962 hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- and weaves them into a new story concerning a long- married couple who discover just how far apart they've wandered over the years. And while true that this show, which has been reconfigured several times since the early '90s, feels cobbled together and a little bit forced in its unrelentingly sour take on marriage, there is much to recommend in Masquerade Theatre's production.

The songs are as powerful as ever. "Every Day a Little Death," Sondheim's exquisite, existential lament about the tiny, almost imperceptible losses in everyday life, still haunts the heart long after you've left the theater. The rakish "Hello, Little Girl" from Into the Woods, about a badly behaving wolf, is still sinfully alluring. And Putting It Together is just about the only place you'll hear some of the more obscure songs like "Bang!" which depicts the down and dirty, violent overtones of flirting and seduction.

Director Phillip Duggins's fine cast handles the material with wit and vocal prowess. More archetype than character, each singer negotiates the social snares of a late-night soiree, where the party games include a grown-up version of truth or dare -- each question is answered, of course, with a song. At the center of the story are a pair of talented performers: Illich Guardiola as the husband with a roving eye, and Natalie Priest as his acerbic wife who rages with witchy venom as she spits out songs like "My Husband the Pig" between sips of her martini. Guardiola brings an oily sex appeal to the part, and he suits the material well. His slippery schmoozing is well balanced by Priest's ruby-lipped, high-voltage energy that burns up the stage every time she vamps across it. Luther Chakurian as an unworldly unmarried party guest is especially powerful during "Bang!" which he sings with Deanna Julian, who has a lovely voice but an oddly flat presentation.

Think of Putting It Together as a sort of Cliffs Notes version of Sondheim's body of work. It obviously would be better to hear the songs in their original context (though many have been altered to fit this story and some are no longer part of their original productions). But Sondheim musicals don't come around that often, and his music is stunning no matter how you hear it.

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Lee Williams