SONDHEIM’S CARE PACKAGE FOR LOST LOVERS
In a melodically and lyrically mediocre time like, for instance, 2017, even lesser songs by Stephen Sondheim beat half the musicals at large. In 1981 Craig Lucas and Norman Rene created a songbook musical Marry Me a Little that took its conditional title from a haunting ballad in Company. A labor of love that retrieved and reclaimed lost wonders from Sondheim’s golden outpour, this 70-minute potpourri of cut or rejected numbers from the master’s oeuvres was set to a piano accompaniment, which some thought too drastic a reduction. Of course, Sondheim’s pieces are almost always organically ingrained into the larger work: They suffer a bit when taken out of context. But, assembled into a kind of internal conversation and amorous dialectic, they can reap a bittersweet harvest of thinking love, emotional ambivalence, and lonely independence.
Transformed by artistic associate Austin Cook (who also accompanies and performs) into a four-part orchestration, and updated with new offerings from Into the Woods and Sondheim’s ill-fated latest work Road Show, Porchlight Music Theatre’s wonderful one-act seamlessly interweaves a score of stunning showpieces. These 21 worthy, if rejected numbers, are leftovers from Sondheim classics and rarities—Follies, A Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Company, and A Little Night Music, and early curiosities Evening Primrose, The Girls of Summer, and Saturday Night.
Artfully cobbled together, they carefully, sometimes passionately, chronicle a brief but combustible romance between two Gotham neighbors. Like many of Sondheim’s regret-full musicals, this impetuous liaison founders on old bad habits, dubious doubts and future fears. Not irrelevantly, Marry Me a Little is also a riveting showcase for Cook as a crooner and for Chicago favorite Bethany Thomas, a belter with a ton of heart.
The unnamed lovers meet cute when his insistent upstairs piano (“Make the Most of Your Music”) disturbs her peace. She pounds on his floorboards (“Bang!”), then knocks on his door, then falls into fantasies for two (“Two Fairy Tales”). After Cook’s songwriter proclaims his prickly professionalism and old-school proclivities (“That Old Piano Roll,” a wonderful honky-tonk tribute) and she her wistful nostalgia (“The Girls of Summer”), they embark on ten duets in a row. These range from the sublimated joy of the strangely simple “All Things Bright and Beautiful” to the intertwined delights of “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House” (cut from Follies) to the disillusionment of “Honey” and “Rainbows,” ditties that caution against non-negotiable absolutes in love.
While the title duet with its force-fed “I’m ready!” sings it all about hope’s random harvests, unquestioned happiness and great expectations are rare in S.S. country. The opener “Saturday Night” is as good as it seldom gets. After that we’re in Sondheim’s much-charted territory of buyer’s remorse from love’s dirty deals (the flippancy of “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” and the heavy irony of “Happily Ever After”). The inevitable and unstoppable finale: “It Wasn’t Meant to Be.”
Before that dour denouement, a believably manic Cook, who plays a very mean keyboard, gets to deliver the complex contentment of “What More Do I Need” and the past-tense heartbreak of “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.” A throbbing balladeer who combines the elegance of Lena and the intensity of Judy, Thomas honors the melody-rich memories of “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” and the left-behind loneliness of “I Remember Sky.”
Warmly shaped by Jess McLeod, this adult charmer is not for all seasons or patrons. For some folks, sad Sondheim can be the musical last straw before a listener breakdown. But the condensed intimacy of Thomas and Cook’s ill-fated urban coupling is a love(lorn) lesson well worth feeling.
photos by Brandon Dahlquist
Marry Me a Little
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 (check for variances)
ends on May 21, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Porchlight
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago