At some point since its arrival Off Broadway in 1981, you may have caught a production of “Marry Me a Little,” the two-character, sung-through “play with music” constructed from a patchwork of songs written for the shows Stephen Sondheim had penned up until that point.
‘MARRY ME A LITTLE’
When: Through May 21
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $38 – $51
Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
But trust me, you have not really seen “Marry Me a Little” until you’ve caught up with the ideally updated and re-imagined version of the show that opened Tuesday night at Porchlight Music Theatre. Particular credit goes to the two dazzling talents involved: Austin Cook, the pianist, singer, actor and musical director, and Bethany Thomas, who has long been known for her clarion voice, which spans so many octaves you might easily lose count, and who here finally has the chance to demonstrate the full range of her dramatic gifts, too.
Along with the Porchlight artistic team, Cook (whose work first knocked me out six years ago, when he made his Chicago debut playing piano for a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre), has taken the story originally spun by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene — about the “imagined” relationship between two single Brooklynites living in neighboring apartments — and made it fully real. The team also (in collaboration with Sondheim) has deftly reconfigured the song list, adding several songs from Sondheim’s post-1980 musicals, including “Into the Woods” and “Road Show.”
The characters also have been skillfully redefined, and while the time frame of the show still claims to be a simultaneously imagined meeting during the course of a single evening, the whole thing feels as if it is the chronicle of a relationship between two mildly neurotic boho spirits as it unspools in real time over many months — from confrontational first meeting, to almost marriage, to parting of the ways. Both The Man and The Woman are artists — with Cook, thin, disheveled, bearded, bespectacled and volatile suggesting a thirtysomething version of Sondheim, and Thomas, no-nonsense but flirty and funny, a professional photographer. And even if they let us know they are lonely, they clearly have a shared need for time alone. And this fits perfectly into the ambivalent “marry me a little” sentiment Sondheim has always been such a master at expressing.
The palpable sexual chemistry between Cook and Thomas adds heat and light to this jewel-like 70-minute show. But for all the moments of romance (and no one can accuse Sondheim of not capturing that sort of excitement), happy-ever-after is not part of the scenario. Wistfulness and pangs of regret (and perhaps a bit of relief) are more to the point.
Most of the 21 seamlessly connected songs (drawn from familiar shows like “Follies,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” as well as from very early shows like “Saturday Night” and “Evening Primrose,” which was written for television), are performed as duets, with the two characters sometimes singing while physically together, but at others singing in tandem from their separate apartments. Each of the performers also has knockout solo turns, with Cook delivering an angry “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” from “Primrose,” and a subtly ironic take on one of my personal favorites, “You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” from “Road Show,” and Thomas bringing a wonderfully zany, multi-voiced, texting-infused spin to “Can That Boy Foxtrot.”
Director Jess McLeod has deftly spotlighted her actors’ many gifts (she even has Cook crawling under his piano to make repairs, much as he did on a memorable opening night years ago for “Ain’t Misbehavin'”). And together they do a formidable job of making the songs feel like dialogue. Set designer Jeffrey Kmiec has reconfigured the theater as an “in-the-square” space, with one apartment filled with a grand piano and the other full of photographic equipment. And Cook’s superb orchestrations are beautifully played by the orchestra that is perched in a corner above the stage, and includes Charlotte Rivard-Hoster (conductor/pianist), Tony Scandora (percussion), Lewis Rawlinson (cello) and Cara Hartz (flute and clarinet). Keegan Bradac’s sound design is impeccable.
“Marry Me a Little” runs just 70 minutes, but Porchlight has turned it into a full-fledged, heart-piercingly beautiful musical. Not to be missed.