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Marry Me a Little

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marry Me a Little
Jason Tam and Lauren Molina.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Stephen Sondheim is revered as one of the musical theatre's preeminent composer-lyricists in no small part because of his tendency to deal in the factual world rather than the fantastical one. When characters in his shows sing his songs, it's because they're so deeply psychologically compelled that there's no other choice. And even when Sondheim delves into the realm of make believe, as in, say, the Loveland sequence from Follies, there's still no escaping the recognizable pain and contemporary ache coursing within every syllable.

It's understandable, then, that there would continue to be real interest in Marry Me a Little, Craig Lucas and Norman René's 1981 revue that put some two dozen then-obscure Sondheim numbers into the mouths of a man and a woman who live in the same Manhattan apartment building yet never meet. It is as accurate an expression of the Sondheim dramatic aesthetic as you can find outside his book musicals, yet it itself is thoroughly unencumbered by any dialogue whatsoever. What's less easy to absorb is why Keen Company's new revival of the show abandons exactly the qualities that make it most noteworthy.

Director Jonathan Silverstein and musical director John Bell are presiding over a revisal, of course — and why not? Countless new recordings, cabaret events, and Roundabout seasons have ensured there's no longer any such thing as unfamiliar Sondheim, so a bit of augmenting is to be expected. But along with the basic changes of swapping out some songs for new ones, this Marry Me a Little both abandons the original's clear-eyed cynicism and neglects to strengthen the pseudo-narrative that fuels it. The result is a show that succeeds on every level except the only one that matters: the dramatic one.

Granted, there has always been at best a glancing chance of that. Sondheim is renowned for tailoring his compositions incredibly tightly to specific shows, so that one can't expect numbers from Evening Primrose to coexist with those from Saturday Night, Company, Anyone Can Whistle, to say nothing of the still-more-retro Follies, A Little Night Music, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Yet that's precisely what's on offer here, doused in the even more scoffworthy notion that the young man (Jason Tam) and woman (Lauren Molina) we watch for 70 minutes would truly engage in this kind of self-analysis at all.

Things don't get off to a terrible start, with "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" and "Saturday Night" establishing the where: a Brooklyn walk-up (designed with taut, structured messiness by Steven C. Kemp), with him on one floor and her directly above. She's a lovelorn musician, he's... Well, that's tougher to say for certain, but "hipster" undoubtedly factors into his job description somewhere. Still, within moments she's singing "Can That Boy Foxtrot!", he's cooing "Bring on the Girls" while sampling Internet porn, and any pretense to believability or serious observation of the human condition is abandoned.

Marry Me a Little
Lauren Molina and Jason Tam.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Tam and Molina unquestionably do the best they can with what they're given, and inject almost all their numbers with the indifferent but all-consuming sexual longing that makes sense for these in-their-late-20s social misfits. Molina cagily blends sauciness with shyness, creating a woman who sadly only comes alive when she's alone. Tam's character is obviously struggling against his own self-perceived limitations, and trying, however ineffectually, to overcome them. Both actors sing pleasantly (if, given the delightful lack of amplification, sometimes too quietly) and pointedly. It's not that there's nothing here.

But I defy anyone to explain why any male of any age would sing "Ah, But Underneath" to elucidate his personality, or why a couple like this would duet on "Bang!" (a cut Night Music song that makes next to no sense outside the context of that show's action). There's simply no reason for these kinds of things, and, even a show as short as this one is far too long to sustain such a nonsensical concept. Silverstein has staged things as convincingly as anyone could, but there's nothing for him to "direct," per se, because there's no substance beneath that of the songs' black-and-white veneer.

The biggest problem with all this, however, is that it ultimately fights too hard against the songs that are its only saving grace. In taking a more optimistic, even at times lighthearted tone, it dispenses with the undercurrent of urban sadness that was the original's only notable thrust. Reducing disaffected sophisticates to starry-eyed no-longer youngsters changes the meaning of the words and notes they sing, that it no longer seems as if those have any meaning at all.

Stripped of that meaning, Marry Me a Little isn't insubstantial — it's incorporeal. Silverstein has created an evening that leaves you wanting these two to find happiness, at least with themselves if not each other, but doesn't give them the additional tools they need to achieve it. It all becomes, then, a story of false hope. That's a very Sondheim subject, no doubt, but this couple can't even articulate it in original words because they have so few new thoughts of their own to express. That's its own kind of tragedy, albeit undoubtedly not the one that Silverstein — or, for that matter, Lucas and René once upon a time — had in mind.


Marry Me a Little
Through October 21
70 minutes, with no intermission
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current schedule Telecharge