Sometimes a microphone isn’t a bad thing.
Within minutes after Stephen Sondheim’s revisited Marry Me a Little opens up, at the Clurman Theatre, you’ll notice that something’s missing. No, it’s not great tunes—this creative whopper includes several of the master’s songs from other shows, cut from other shows, or never before heard—and it’s not the clever conceit of two apartment building neighbors, Her and Him (Lauren Molina and Jason Tam), separately alone on a Saturday night and jointly looking for love.
What’s missing is volume and depth of sound, as neither performer has the vocal prowess to fill the small theater, let alone make it resonate. The singers sound like they’re in a vacuum, and the 70-minute show almost taunts the audience to look for their seat-side volume controls. Too bad, too, as among the many gems here are “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “Ah, But Underneath,” and the title tune.
I can’t blame the performers for this mishap; Marry Me a Little is all music, complex music, Sondheim’s amusement park melodies, and Molina and Tam work their hearts out with solos and duets and those tricky lyrics, and—set-wise—making sure they don’t bump into each other on a stage that puts them together, psychologically, but physically in two separate rooms. And they were chosen for the roles. But power-houses they are not, making the show a cocktail conversation piece as opposed to a genuine theatrical experience.
More baffling, still, is that neither lead seems a perfect fit in the acting department either. Once again, they’re on top of the emotions and emote their way through a grueling series of love-and-loss romance tales, but their stage presence is a bit like their singing; it needs an amp. You’ll yearn for the likes of Christine Ebersole to show up and sing a few bars.
Marry Me a Little was Conceived and Developed by Craig Lucas and the late Norman Rene, and originally premiered off-off Broadway in 1980. This version has a new concept, with Lucas and Sondheim on board. The dilemma of the two leads in identical situations—and apartments—is a great one, even if the show loses a bit of punch once it goes surreal. Are they fantasizing about each other? Ex relationships? Or are we seeing a glimpse of their past together? By the end, some of these questions are cleared up, but the vagueness is a weak substitution for more plot clarity and skillful direction (John Bell’s taught staging is otherwise exceptional).
The show has been updated to the Present, in Brooklyn, and texting and laptops have been incorporated beautifully. Lyrically, not so much. Who in this day and age references J.P. Morgan when talking about the extreme rich (show of hands for those of you who even know who he is); even Puccini and Freud mentions scream of Woody Allen’s vintage New York. And I’ve never understood why costume designers (here it’s Jennifer Paar) insist on clothing actors in clothes only actors wear. Tam almost passes off as a Hipster (or, with his thin, hairless body, a Twink), but Molina looks as if she’s wearing her rehearsal clothes, not something young adults outside the theater world would purchase. Show folk, take note: Urbanites are more Banana Republic/H&M these days than vintage thrift shop.
To watch this show is easy; it’s Sondheim music, after all, and who doesn’t want to hear his lesser-known recordings. If you’ve hit a lot of newer musicals of late, you’ll be especially relieved to listen to melodies that don’t leave your ear before they hit your lobe. And it almost goes without saying that if you’re an aficionado of Sondheim’s work, this is a must. I only wish Marry Me a Little engaged us just a little bit more.
“Marry Me a Little” runs through Oct. 24 at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd St. For tickets or info, call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.theatrerow.org/theclurman.htm.