By Barry Reszel
When Stephen Sondheim‘s Marry Me a Little joined the American musical theatre canon off Broadway in 1981, the soundtracks of courtships were composed by Lionel Richie, R.E.M., Billy Joel, U2 and Sting, among many others.
But when two participants of a coupling, be it real or wistfully imagined, sing the songs themselves and the songs tell the entire story (sans dialogue) of their entire relationship in a snappy 70 minutes (with bows, thank you very much), then the songbook belongs entirely to the undisputed master of the contemporary musical.
Marry Me is Sondheim’s charming if melancholy musical revue focused on two urban singles, each home alone on a Saturday night. The Man is a pianist, presumably a composer, whose playing and singing disturbs his neighbor in the apartment below, the Woman. She knocks on his apartment door when her pounding on the ceiling with a broomstick does nothing to quiet him, and their entire relationship unfolds…unless it’s all just one big dream sequence.
Their sweet fantasies and deep yearnings are brought to theatrical life through the collection of songs cut from final productions of such musicals as Anyone Can Whistle, Follies, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and others.
This not-often-produced piece is now being brought to fantastic new life at Porchlight Music Theatre. New life with a magnificent addition.
As announced at opening, Porchlight worked with Sondheim to rework the Marry Me songbook, incorporating a number of the master’s works written since the original production. But upon closer look at the many changes to the original songbook when compared to the musical numbers listed in Porchlight’s program, it’s fair to call this production a “world premiere.”
And what a world premiere it is.
Director Jess McLoud‘s choices of treasured stage veterans Austin Cook as the Man and Bethany Thomas as the Woman are simply superb.
It almost seems unfair when adding up the gifts Jeff winner Cook possesses. Already known as master musician and composer, his good looks, terrific voice and seamless characterization have to make the now-Brooklyn resident in demand on every American stage.
Thomas, recognizable from her plethora of appearances in virtually every theatre in the Midwest, absolutely slays Sondheim’s complex melodies and is an absolute delight as the Woman. If there’s a single ah-ha moment among her rich work in Marry Me, it comes in the song “I Remember Sky” from Evening Primrose, a piece not part of the original Marry Me score. Sung at the apex of the couple’s inevitable breakup, Thomas gives a master class on how to act a song—a performance no student of musical theatre should miss.
With professional, unobstructionist sets, lighting, costuming and sound, this production is rightfully focused on the music. In addition to being one of the show’s two onstage stars, Music Director Cook penned the orchestrations (presumably with Sondheim’s blessing) since the original was only written for piano. Charlotte Rivard-Hoster (keyboard) admirably conducts her combo including Tony Scandora (percussion), Lewis Rawlinson (cello) and Cara Hartz (woodwinds). It’s especially enjoyable when Cook joins in on piano from the stage.
All this said, perhaps the most intriguing element of Marry Me is its ability to tell this relationship tale simply through a series of preexisting songs, none of which was specifically written for the production. For that, original conceivers/developers Craig Lucas and Norman René are commended. So too is the local team that reimagined the piece with its vaunted composer/lyricist.
But most of the plaudits belong to Cook and Thomas. It’s their work, their passion, their talents that will make audiences enjoy Marry Me a Little a whole heckuva lot.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Marry Me a Little” through May 21 at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.