Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Marry Me a Little
Porchlight Music Theatre
Review by John Olson

Also see John's review of Linda Vista


Austin Cook and Bethany Thomas
Photo by Brandon Dahlquist
This selection of then-obscure songs culled from Stephen Sondheim's trunk by Craig Lucas and Norman René in 1980 and revived Off-Broadway in 2012 by New York City's Keen Company has come to Chicago courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre, Chicago's most Sondheim-devoted company. And, it's come with a few surprises. As Lucas and René originally conceived this sung-through musical, which Lucas put together after performing in the ensemble of the original Broadway production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a man and a woman living one floor apart in the same Brooklyn apartment building are alone on a Saturday night. Over the course of 18 songs, they ponder love and connection but don't actually connect with each other. In this version, featuring a different assortment of songs chosen with Sondheim's permission, the piece becomes a chronicle of a failed relationship.

The man and woman are still neighbors. The woman, who is a photographer, lives directly below the man, who is a composer. After his particularly loud piano and vocal rendition of "That Old Piano Roll Blues" (cut from Follies), she begins banging on the ceiling. When that fails, the two imagine the confrontation to come with "Bang" (cut from A Little Night Music). The woman go upstairs to complain, but the two are quickly taken with each other ("Your Eyes Are Blue," cut from Forum). Things progress quickly, and three songs later they are each ready to get married a little. By six or seven songs after that, they've split.

Alone again, the man celebrates his regained independence with "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" (from Evening Primrose) as she relishes her memory of another man's sexual prowess in "Can That Boy Foxtrot" (cut from Follies). By the end of the piece, they reach a certain acceptance that their relationship was good thing, though not destined to last ("It Wasn't Meant to Happen," cut from Follies). This beginning, middle and end all occurring in 70 intermissionless minutes is of course not meant to be interpreted as happening in real time, but it's nonetheless a little jarring to see the couple fall in and out of love so quickly, at least until you understand the piece's intention. That said, the songs work well as cycle of a relationship's life cycle and in fact suit the title better did the original concepts.

Also surprising, in a good way, is the unexpected casting of Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook as the woman and man. Ms. Thomas is well-known to Chicago audiences, having worked her way up through the storefront/non-Equity ranks in many productions with Porchlight and other companies to Equity membership and roles in regional theaters. She's known for her big, booming voice—and while we hear some of that here, she also shows a delicacy and quietness in much of her singing that she hasn't had as much opportunity to show previously. Her co-star Austin Cook is better known as a music director, though he was an onstage piano accompanist with some songs to sing in Porchlight's previous Sondheim revues Putting It Together and Sondheim on Sondheim. The conceit of making his character a composer provides an excuse to put a grand piano on stage and allow him to display his considerable pianistic skills as well as his vocal and acting ability. Together, the two are satisfying interpreters of the material, even if they have been directed to push too hard and sing too loudly a good bit of the time. The songs included here are some of Sondheim's more intimate numbers, and a softer, more reflective approach would be more appropriate. Cook, in addition to starring in this two-person piece, serves as music director as well, and maybe the dual responsibilities hinder his perspective. Three responsibilities, actually: He also created lovely new orchestrations for a band of piano, percussion, cello and woodwind (flute and clarinet) to replace the piano-only accompaniment created for the show.

Director Jess McLeod places the action in the round, with the woman's apartment on one side of the stage and the man's on the other side, though the lines blur at times and the same space is sometimes meant to be two different apartments, as it's usually staged. Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and properties designer Mealah Heidenreich give us enough to suggest smart, if not lavish New York digs.

Given that so many of the songs originally included in the revue can no longer be considered trunk songs—"Marry Me a Little" has been reinstated into Company, while Saturday Night was finally produced in the U.S. in 1999—Porchlight has incorporated a few "new" trunk songs to surprise and delight Sondheim fans. They include "Honey," cut from Merrily We Roll Along and "Make the Most of Your Music," cut from Follies. Some of the other songs added—"I Remember Sky" from Evening Primrose, "You Are the Best Thing That Ever Hs Happened to Me (Road Show), and "What More Do I Need?" (Saturday Night)—have been recorded but may still be less familiar to audiences.

With the huge catalog Sondheim has created, it's not surprising, and it is comforting, to know he has songs for all occasions. Whether one needs melodic company while alone on a Saturday night, or consolation after a break-up, he has a song for you. Thanks again to Mr. Sondheim for the songs—and to Porchlight for bringing them to us so masterfully.

Marry Me a Little will play Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through May 21, 2017. For tickets and further information, visit www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or call 773-327-5252.


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