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Review | ‘Here We Are’ brings Sondheim back to us. Just not as a raging success.

NEW YORK — A dream cast has been assembled for “Here We Are,” the final Musical in the illustrious career of the late Stephen Sondheim. A dreamy first act unfolds, too, courtesy of director Joe Mantello and a sparkling physical design in the Shed’s Griffin Theater, the off-Broadway space where the world premiere had its official opening Sunday night.

For as long as the music lasts, in fact — and it essentially comes to an abrupt halt early in Act 2 — “Here We Are” is a delightful riff on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist films, including the Oscar-winning “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” But in art as in life, it seems, all good things must come to an end, and on this occasion, they end about 45 minutes before the curtain call.

“Here We Are,” which Sondheim worked on with playwright David Ives in the years before his death at 91 in 2021, is nevertheless the most eagerly anticipated new musical of the season. The magnitude of talent it has attracted is a testament to Sondheim’s stature: The cast of 11 includes David Hyde Pierce, Bobby Cannavale, Rachel Bay Jones, Amber Gray, Micaela Diamond, Steven Pasquale and Denis O’Hare. They’re all big names, and the other splendid actors — Jin Ha, Jeremy Shamos, Francois Battiste and Tracie Bennett — are also ebullient presences, adding to the sense of a major event.

They collectively infuse the satire with a gleeful effervescence, and several of the turns bear the earmarks of musical comedy divinity: Pierce as an ambivalent Catholic bishop; Diamond as a conflicted Social Justice Warrior; Ha as a soldier who wears his heart, along with his medals, on his sleeve; Jones as an avatar for meaningless bourgeois bliss.

It would be a particular satisfaction to declare that their contributions spell unqualified success. But “Here We Are” — reportedly unfinished at the time of Sondheim’s death — is only about 60 percent of an entertaining musical, and not even an entire musical, really: Given the mostly fragmentary songs and the tedious, drawn-out denouement Ives devises, it’s what you might term an “usical.” The brisk and funny storytelling and witty musical interludes of Act 1 give way in Act 2 to endless bloviating on the Meaning of Everything. “Please,” you find yourself musing, “let them start singing again.”

They don’t, alas. The show, of course, emanates from unusually cerebral source material: It’s an adaptation of 1972’s French-language “Discreet Charm” and Buñuel’s earlier Spanish-language “The Exterminating Angel.” The works explore a beloved theme of the revolutionary filmmaker: the malevolent pretensions of the rich, who seek to hold on to privilege as the world around them explodes.

Ives transposes the action to an America of rampant affluence and ghastly superficiality, populated by boorish Wall Street titans (Cannavale) and shady plastic surgeons (Shamos) and drug-dealing diplomats (Pasquale) and tightly wound Hollywood agents (Gray). In an echo of “Discreet Charm,” they’re all in search of a decent meal and, traveling from one ridiculously trendy dining spot to another, discover the cupboards are always bare. This leads in Act 2 to the “Exterminating Angel” part, when they and the others, including the bishop, the social justice warrior and the soldier, all get trapped, “No Exit” style, in a fancy room from which there is no escape.

Set and costume designer David Zinn renders these environments, and dresses the characters, in stunningly zesty fashion. Natasha Katz’s lighting design puts Zinn’s achievements thrillingly in the limelight, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim’s indispensable collaborator, works his usual magic with the tunes, assisted by conductor Alexander Gemignani and a fine 14-member orchestra.

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Sondheim, a lover of pastiche, has composed what comes across as a pastiche of Sondheim himself, with discernible melodic fingerprints from other Sondheim scores, such as “Passion” and “Sweeney Todd.” Unsurprisingly, Sondheim’s genius as a wordsmith also reveals itself freshly. As a waiter played by O’Hare explains to the starving swells: “We do expect a little latte later/ But we haven’t got a lotta latte now.”

“Here We Are” was originally titled “Square One,” which has ironic implications: The show itself sends out revolutionary vibes. In its way, it’s a manifesto, calling for innovation in the form and content of musical theater. Further developing an idea Sondheim introduced with James Lapine in what would be his last great musical — 1994’s “Passion” — the songs in “Here We Are” are mere musical outbursts, veritable extensions of conversation. Why, the musical asks, can’t the music end if the story no longer requires it? (There are two mini numbers in Act 2; after that, Tunick’s underscoring carries us through to the end.)

The second-act problem here, though, is that the story loses altitude without the buoyancy of music. All the vivacity Mantello effectively builds up in Act 1 — on Zinn’s gorgeous all-white set with mirrored doors — lapses after intermission into tired philosophizing.

We’ve been through sharper existential crises with convergences of Sondheim characters over the years: the painted figures stuck forever together on the Seurat canvas in “Sunday in the Park with George,” the fairy-tale denizens wandering bewildered in the forest of “Into the Woods.” We’re consoled in “Here We Are” with one more chance to gather together with Sondheim, to hear his irreplaceable voice on a stage. The resulting evening might not be stranded at square one, but it doesn’t satisfactorily cross the finish line, either.

Here We Are, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by David Ives. Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Tom Gibbons; choreography, Sam Pinkleton; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music supervision, Alexander Gemignani. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Jan. 21 at the Shed, 545 W. 30th St., New York.

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