I’ve always thought of Stephen Sondheim as a special gift from the musical theatre universe – a composer who manages to entertain while making you think – and who doesn’t shy away from examining the extraordinarily complex issues of the human heart. It’s what initially drew me to his work, and what has kept me coming back over the years. There’s always something new to learn, and every time I re-experience one of his pieces I find something new to appreciate.
I was thrilled when I heard that Tarragon Theatre was going to present Marry Me a Little, a show that isn’t technically a Sondheim show, but rather a collection of his lesser known works and ‘rejects’ that were cut from final products. Created in 1980 by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, the show uses Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics to tell a story of two lonely people in an urban setting who find and lose love. There is no speaking, but rather Sondheim’s songs are interwoven to create a narrative.
In the original production the lonely heart characters were always in two separate apartments, their storylines playing out similarly but not technically ‘together.’ In Tarragon’s production, director Adam Brazier has decided to change things up and have the characters interact in such a way that the audience watches a relationship begin, develop, and ultimately end. It was a bold choice that may appeal less to Sondheim purists, but which I feel will help those without a firm grasp on Sondheim understand and follow the story better.
The romantic leads are played by Adrian Marchuk and Elodie Gillett, who both do a superb job of handling the difficult score. Their voices lend themselves well to Sondheim’s tricky orchestrations, and their stamina is to be commended. They have excellent chemistry and the ability to act and sing the songs (a necessary skill when tackling Sondheim).
Marchuk opens the show as our lead ‘Guy’ who is lamenting his single status alone in his apartment. When Gillett (‘Girl’) appears it quickly becomes apparent that the show is beginning at the end. Brazier has opted to show us the tattered man at the end of a broken relationship, and then take us back in time to watch as their romance developed.
The two meet, they sing, they court and they run around a lot. Especially in the first half of the show, there’s a lot of ‘busyness’ on the stage as the characters seem to move about at warp speed, performing not just lyrical gymnastics, but what felt like physical ones at times too. The story (and the performances) improved when the actors were allowed to slow down and let the songs do the work.
As the relationship begins to unravel and the unrelenting physicality waned, the magic of the show began to emerge. Marchuk and Gillett are accomplished singers who clearly understand Sondheim, and when left to simply express the emotions beneath his words, they will break your heart.
At the halfway point, as the relationship begins to sour and the couple express differing opinions, the strength of the piece becomes evident. Gillett launches into an understated and hopeful version of “Marry Me a Little” and uses it to open her heart to Marchuk, who responds back with “Happily Ever After”. It’s a brilliant choice of song arrangement, and watching the sorrow on Gillet’s face as Marchuk sings the painful truths within his song was the pinnacle of the evening for me.
Paul Sportelli deserves a shout-out for his inventive musical direction, playing through difficult material with energy and enthusiasm but also creating beautiful arrangements (and re-arrangements) of Sondheim’s songs. Gareth Crew’s lighting worked well to accentuate the more tender moments in the story, especially during “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, and Ken MacDonald’s set reminds the audience of New York City ‘artist’ living, though at times it feels a bit too busy.
In the end, Marry Me a Little is a show for Sondheim lovers. If you enjoy his music, you will enjoy getting to hear some of his lesser-known gems and likely take delight in the addition of ‘Rainbows’ – a song unheard until now and penned for the upcoming Into the Woods film.
For people who don’t enjoy Sondheim, the interactive directorial style should make the show easier to follow, but it still may not be a home run. Either way, if you love musical theatre you owe it to yourself to check it out. It is a rare glimpse into the mind of a man many of us idolize, and a damn fine exploration on relationships as well.
Marry Me a Little plays at Tarragon Theatre until April 6th. For more information or to purchase tickets please call 416-531-1827 or go online http://tarragontheatre.com/season/1314/marry-me-a-little/