Daniel Okrent
February 25, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

We gave it a D

This Broadway season began with the bright promise of a Stephen Sondheim three-fer: a restaging, starring Carol Burnett, of the revue Putting It Together; the New York premiere of the composer-lyricist’s very first musical, 1955’s Saturday Night; and the feverishly anticipated debut of Wise Guys, his first new show in six years.

Funny how things turn out. Burnett overwhelmed the delicate material with too much mugging. Wise Guys cratered in workshop. The only thing left standing is Saturday Night. For Sond-heads, it’s a must-see (for Sond-heads like me, the lint in his coat pockets would be a must-see). But for all of you normal people out there, it’s a pleasant-enough diversion — if your idea of a pleasant diversion is a poorly written, stupidly plotted anachronism with some nice songs dropped in here and there.

Sondheim, who was still in his 20s when he wrote Saturday Night, shares billing with the show’s book writer, Julius J. Epstein. Several years earlier, Epstein had cowritten Casablanca with his twin brother, Philip, and if nothing else, Saturday Night firmly establishes which Epstein twin had the talent. The story is the awkward tale of a cringe-producing gang of golly-gee pals in Brooklyn who inexplicably help out an insufferably pretentious buddy, circa 1929. The writing is an omelette of cliches, the jokes as naive as the jolly lads who somehow don’t mind that they are exploited, patronized, and eventually swindled by their pal Gene (played well and sung appealingly by David Campbell, despite a brow-furrowing tic that sometimes seizes his forehead, giving him a frightening resemblance to George W. Bush).

The show certainly sings well enough, especially in the numbers that belong to the charming female lead, Lauren Ward. The most vapid criticism of Sondheim — that he can’t write hummable melodies — gets deflated here; a couple of these tunes are so damn hummable they almost grow annoying. But such appealing songs as ”A Moment With You” and ”Love’s a Bond” nicely evoke the sound of the ’20s, auguring the period pastiche that Sondheim would later deploy so thrillingly in Follies. Saturday Night also contains ”What More Do I Need?” — which has become a near standard through its adoption by a generation of cabaret singers.

A song as good as that is justification enough to be grateful for Saturday Night. But its real contribution was quite a bit larger. When the original production was canceled, the Sondheim kid was compelled to look for work by trotting around a portfolio of the show’s words and music. And that’s how, at age 25, Sondheim landed the job as Leonard Bernstein’s lyricist on a little project called West Side Story. For Sondheim freaks: B; for everyone else: D

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