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'Putnam' review
by Martin Denton May 31, 2002



Putnam is a new musical by Sharon Fogarty. Set in 1985, it tells the story of William J. Putnam, a man who suffers from being too famous to function. After several attempts at suicide, he is visited by Diversified Talent Agency, a private society that has been helping celebrities play dead for nearly 300 years. Discovered is a collection of artists thought to have died young, holding onto no relic of their famous pasts except for their original middle names. Music and impersonations pay homage to the missing celebrities, as if they had been granted a longer, less publicized existence.

This is a "sneak preview" production. A longer run of Putnam is promised for the fall.
The idea behind Putnam is pretty neat: a Very Famous Celebritya star, in vague but obvious ways, of movies, music, and TVfinds that he is no longer able to function as a human being. He attempts suicide and lands in a hospital. One day, he is awakened from his coma by a strange woman with a thing for airplanes who quite possibly is Amelia Earhart. Soon, other presumably dead celebritiesincluding Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Billie Holliday, John Lennon, and Janis Joplinturn up, bringing with them an invitation for Putnam to join them at the Diversified Talent Agency, an organization that arranges for the deaths of famous people so that they can live in peace, pursuing the artistic endeavors that they are suited for.

What's cool about this idea is, (a), it prompts some provocative (though necessarily inconclusive) musing about the nature of fame and the responsibility of artists who become famous; and, (b), it offers the playwright/director, Sharon Fogarty, and her talented company of actors, priceless opportunities for savvy pastiche of these legendary figures, here miraculously returned to life and brought together. Putnam emerges as a charming fantasia on what we think we know and would like to imagine about these iconic folk. And it's also a very satisfying fairy tale about the importance of faith and the power of love. It's delightfully entertaining.Fogarty calls her work an "anti-musical" but Putnam feels to me very much like a gentle folk-rock musical play in the style of, say, Godspell. The book is episodic and loose (and, to be frank, a bit muddy in the middle); the score consists of comic homages to the celebrities depicted and more straightforward ballads that address the fundamental issues raised by the story. Some of the songsespecially Putnam's own signature tune (which opens and closes the show) and a rousing choral anthem about the importance of celebrityare really quite lovely. (Unfortunately, no titles are provided in the program.)

Each dead celebrity gets at least one moment in the spotlight. Fogarty is delicious as the Monroe character, here called "Jean" (at Diversified Talent Agency, everybody is known by the middle name they were born with). Jason Grossman does a mean Presley impression as "Aaron," and Karen Christie Ward is blithely flighty (pun intended) as "Mary" (Amelia Earhart). Bobbi Owens ("Fagan"; Billie Holliday), Al Quagliata ("Winston"; John Lennon), and Linda Kobylinksi ("Lyn"; Janis Jolpin) are less precise in their characterizations but nevertheless effective. Quagliata gets terrific comic mileage, though, from a couple of cameos as a Woody Allen-like director, caught on TV mourning Putnam's apparent death. Jenni Frost is appropriately nurturing and human as the young nurse, Sadie, with whom Putnam falls in love.

Jason Alan Griffin is splendid in the title role, anchoring this fanciful journey into a place that may be the Great Beyond or may, in fact, be Ithaca, New York. Putnam is, indeed, that kind of show. The press release promises that Putnam will be back in the fall; with some tightening and strengthening of focus, it should prove entirely worthy of an extended engagement. We'll keep our eyes out for it.