Marry Me a Little
New Rep’s production of the Stephen Sondheim revue-like "Marry Me a Little" is lovely and frustrating. Yes, it’s cleverly staged and sweetly sung by appealing actors, but there are just enough drawbacks that it makes for an ultimately unsatisfying production. That’s a tough verdict because the "gender blind" production directed by Ilyse Robbins means so well and tries to give a fresh take on these Sondheim trunk songs, but sometimes meaning well just isn’t enough.
The show came about after actor-turned-playwright Craig Lucas approached Sondheim about doing a show of his unpublished songs. (At the time Lucas was appearing in the original cast of "Sweeney Todd.") Lucas and his collaborator Norman Rene worked with Sondheim on assembling his trunk songs and their two-person show ran Off-Broadway for a limited run with Lucas and actress Suzanne Henry. What gave the show its life was the original cast album, which offered Sondheim fans a treasure-trove of unheard material. Long a favorite in regional theaters, the show got its first major New York revival last season.
Lucas and Rene conceived the show as a vocal pas de deux between a man and a woman who live in adjacent apartments and sing thematically linked songs about love, sex, marriage, and life. The catch is that they connect through that music; yet ultimately never meet.
New Rep got Sondheim’s approval to do a gender-blind production, so that songs originally sung by a man and a woman could be done with different romantic combinations -- man/woman, man/man, and woman/woman.
It’s a great concept, if not entirely new (a same-sex production with two men debuted in Hollywood, CA, in 1998) and works very well within each number. When a graying Brad Peloquin duets with a weight-lifting Phil Tayler on the saucy "Can That Boy Foxtrot" (originally cut from "Follies") it’s a hoot - a neat twist to the song and winking embrace of gay stereotypes of a twink and the older man who digs him. On the feminine side, Aimee Doherty and Erica Spyres make "Girls of Summer" (originally incidental music for a 1956 play) into a hot, bluesy vamp, slyly tossing each other longing looks across the space between their respective apartments in Erik Diaz and Jose Stallone’s multi-level, nicely cluttered city block of a set.
The problem comes when Robbins keeps the players switching partners without having them stay the same characters. Spyres is the same violin-playing, slightly Bohemian young woman whether she’s mooning over yuppie Doherty or connecting with skateboard-riding, wannabe author Tayler through the invisible wall that divides their studio apartments. And Peloquin is the same lonely architect whether he’s trying to catch Doherty’s eye through the window or thinking about how Tayler can foxtrot.
This apartment building of apparently avowed bisexuals has two downfalls. First, it’s easy to get it set in your head that the first musical relationship that’s set up between two characters is the "real" one, so it’s tough to watch Spyres sing "Rainbows," a moving duet from a to-be-produced movie version of "Into the Woods," with Tayler without wanting to yell: "Forget him, honey. He can’t commit because he’s gay!" That type of distraction is a shame, especially with "Rainbows," because the song’s lyrics about a mismatch (between a man who would compromise his dreams for lower expectations and a woman who would prefer to dream big and maybe fail) is wonderfully touching, and Spyres and Tayler do a wonderful job on it. The duo didn’t have much private stage time when they individually shone in the Lyric Stage’s production of "Avenue Q" earlier this year, but together their voices blend beautifully and they succeed in really making a connection through that shared apartment wall.
And that’s the second problem -- because the cast is constantly switching partners, it’s tough to build up an arc of a relationship amongst them. "Marry Me a Little’s" song progression goes from a longing for a romantic partner to the getting of one and the disappointment that can happen after, so it’s ideal to have the characters grow a relationship throughout the brief show (it clocks in at a speedy sub-90 minutes with an intermission). That’s hard enough when the actors are all restricted to their own playing spaces (until the final moment of the show, an admittedly nice moment), but it’s nearly impossible when no two are allowed to build a consistent connection.
New Rep’s decision to make this intimate musical into a mainstage show and that impressively sprawling set of Diaz’s also lessen the impact of the production. "Marry Me a Little" is a small, intimate show. Just two pianos (ably played by music director David McGory and New Rep regular Todd C. Gordon, themselves tenants in this fictional apartment building, humorously setting the scene with loud warm up that causes the other cast members to bang on their walls and floors) and four singers are all it requires and sometimes they get a bit lost in the big Mosesian Theater.
Vocally the cast is best when singing as a group; the full-company numbers (both coincidentally cut from "Company") of "Marry Me a Little" and the even more cynical "Happily Ever After" are fun and bracing. But the solos could have benefited from the more intimate confines of a space like the Arsenal’s Black Box theater, especially Peloquin’s beautifully delicate high tenor, shown off nicely in "All Things Bright and Beautiful" (cut from "Follies"). And Doherty’s rendition of "There Won’t Be Trumpets" (cut from "Anyone Can Whistle") has a lovely build but would have been even more triumphant if she wasn’t a story and a half up and near the back of the stage.
You’ve got to give Robbins points for trying something different, for challenging convention and audience assumptions. But ultimately the slight and unassuming revue that is "Marry Me a Little" can’t really back up all that much new. It remains a sweet little show with some lovely songs, but never busts out into something more.
"Marry Me a Little" continues through Jan. 27, 2013 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For more info you can go to the company’s website.