Thursday, April 20, 2017

Porchlight's 'Marry Me a Little' Blissfully Weds Sondheim Songs Lacking a Familiar Ring -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marry Me a Little
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru May 21

Simply at face value, Marry Me a Little should appeal to almost anyone...with a basic appreciation of musical theater or just talented people performing magnificently.

It features a simple love story with just 2 people in the cast, no dialogue to muddle up the narrative, an excellent set design (by Jeff Kmiec) and wonderful songs by the masterful Stephen Sondheim, all remarkably well-sung by the likable Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook--with the latter also dazzling on piano.

And though the 75-minute runtime might seem short when assessing transportation options, the entertainment provided actually feels quite sufficient.

I can imagine this being an idyllic choice for date night, even for those married half a century.

So I don't mean to suggest a deep-seated appreciation of Sondheim, his music, lyrics and the musicals he's created over 60+ years is imperative to tremendously enjoy Marry Me a Little, as presented by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 on Belmont Avenue.

But being a Sondheim acolyte as I am only adds to the delectability of this piece--which I had never seen--and this particular production.

Sondheim revues and tribute concerts have been fairly commonplace going back to the '70s and I've seen several in recent years, including a magnificent Sondheim on Sondheim at Porchlight, also starring Austin Cook.

Marry Me a Little--which I was somewhat surprised to learn was originally created in 1980, by Craig Lucas and Norman René--is a bit different in that:

A) The Sondheim songs are largely unfamiliar ones, written for but not used in* shows like Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, etc., or from his unproduced first musical, Saturday Night (and lesser-known works like Evening Primrose); and B) The tunes are strung together to tell a new story.** (*Since Marry Me a Little was originally created, its title song has been regularly included in revivals of Company, and Saturday Night has been staged. **This is similar to Snapshots, which uses Stephen Schwartz songs--albeit notable ones--in service of a new narrative.)

Beyond the exquisite talents of Thomas, Cook and of course, Sondheim, making Porchlight's production of Marry Me a Little all the more special is that--thanks to interaction with and approval from the maestro himself--the songlist and sequencing are entirely unique.

It isn't surprising that the show has been updated over the years, but even compared to a 2012 Off-Broadway version I used to Spotifamiliarize myself, the piece presently directed by Jess McLeod is markedly different.

It opens with Cook ("The Man") living underneath the apartment of Thomas ("The Woman"), as both rue being home alone on "Saturday Night."

In what I would describe as a "musical reverie romcom," the two stars spend the entire show singing songs about, to, with or simply near each other. That these songs fit together sublimely well without being written expressly for this show bespeaks the universal genius of Sondheim.

As does the truth that tunes such as "Bang!," "Two Fairy Tales," "A Moment With You," "Rainbows," "I Remember Sky"--with a particularly sensational vocal from Thomas--"If You Can Find Me, I'm Here," "Can That Boy Foxtrot" and more sounded absolutely phenomenal at Stage 773 but weren't deemed good or apt enough to make it to Broadway, at least initially.

And so, with the light in the theater sufficient to read the program's songlist--which cited each song's origins--as I watched Marry Me a Little, it only added to my bliss to consider how and where six terrific songs may have originally fit into Follies, or two great ones ("Bang!," "Two Fairy Tales") into A Little Night Music, why "Happily Ever After" might've been squeezed out of Company and the wondrous "Rainbow" was cut from Into the Woods.

Appreciating that this century's "You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened"--which I recalled from Bounce at the Goodman Theatre in 2003, before that show morphed into Road Show--must have been approved by Sondheim for inclusion in this production, I was also impressed by several numbers he had written for Saturday Night before turning 24 years old. (The show was expected to hit Broadway in 1954-55, but never did.)

And I was struck by how there was seemingly nothing--at least apropos--left on the cutting room floor from Sunday in the Park with George or Passion, among others.

Also worth noting is that the truly gifted Austin Cook wrote orchestrations for the songs--in addition to singing and playing piano onstage and serving as the show's musical director--allowing for a 4-person orchestra to add to the beauty of the evening.

With its brevity, lack of dialogue and rather simplistic storyline somewhat limiting my emotional embrace, I can't quite put Marry Me a Little on the same level of full-fledged Sondheim masterpieces. 

But for what it is, it's really superlative.

Especially right here and now. 

While watching, I kept noting songs I found exceptional, and wound up with at least 10 such notations.

So whether you're simply looking for some live entertainment you might truly love or are continuing a lifelong Sondheim symposium in your mind, if Marry Me a Little is to be taken as a proposal your answer should clearly be a most definitive...


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