by Lynn on March 6, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Marry Me A Little

At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto.  Conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman René. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Adam Brazier. Designed by Ken MacDonald. Lighting by Gareth Crew. Choreography by Linda Garneau. Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli. Starring: Elodie Gillett and Adrian Marchuk.

Plays at the Tarragon Mainspace until April 6.

Actors who can sing and singers who can act love singing the works of Stephen Sondheim. He is the Mount Everest of the musical theatre. If you can sing Sondheim, you can sing anybody and anything. His lyrics are rich, complex, layered, dazzlingly rhymed and reveal characters who are emotional or perhaps emotionally at sea. Sondheim’s characters sing of loneliness, trouble with commitment, unrequited love, longing, yearning, and even happiness but tinged with angst.

Not content with just Sondheim’s many musicals, there are now Sondheim revues using his songs. First in 1976 in England, Side By Side By Sondheim was created for Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine by David Kernan (a master Sondheim interpreter). It’s a compilation of Sondheim’s songs from various musicals arranged to show Sondheim’s range, themes and musical prowess.

Then in 1980 in New York, Craig Lucas and Norman René created Marry Me A Little composed of songs from Sondheim’s very early work (Saturday Night a 1954 musical that was unproduced for decades; Evening Primrose, a show for television, Anyone Can Whistle, a quick flop), or songs that were cut from many of his well known shows (A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. etc.). The one exception for this production is the Canadian premiere of a song called “Rainbows”, written for the upcoming film of In the Woods but not used. The same Sondheim brilliance is there, even in the early work.

The premise of this Toronto version of Marry Me a Little is to begin at the end of a relationship. It tells the story of a couple, called He and She in the program,  who live in Brooklyn; how they met, fell in love, lived together, worked together, and dealt with each other, until the end. (Apparently the original New   York concept dealt with two lonely people in their own apartments telling their own stories through the songs.)

He (Adrian Marchuck) is a composer set in his ways, with his own rituals for writing. He wears slippers when he’s composing at the piano and leaves them neatly by the piano when he is not. He wears a specific sweater when composing.  He sits in a beat up chair on wheels with the stuffing coming out of the padded seat. We first see him with a proper piano bench but he hauls it out of the way and brings out his almost discarded beat up chair. His relationship with She has ended, which gives him fodder for a song he seems to be writing—in this case “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” (from Evening Primrose). As with any writer, and especially Sondheim, He will use the pain of his breakup to write a song in which he is looking for his next love.

He meets She (Elodie Gillett) when she comes to his apartment for a run-through of “Can That Boy Foxtrot” (cut from Follies). She is preparing it for her cabaret act. That is the beginning of their relationship. Interestingly, we never see her working in her area except for that one song specifically used in her act.

She moves in; gets rid of his beloved, ratty chair on wheels. She gives him the piano bench in its place. She is ready to toss his special slippers until he lunges at them and saves them from the trash. They sing to each other; He is absorbed in his work at the exclusion of her.  She tweaks at him; they play in bed. She proposes to him (“Marry Me A Little” cut from Company) and he is traumatised with doubt and lack of commitment. They try to work it out. It’s Sondheim, we know how it ends, besides we saw the ending at the beginning of the show.

I found it interesting that in two cases at least the songs are sung by the opposite gender to who sang them in the original musical. For example “Ah, But Underneath” is sung by He as he furiously seems to be writing it. It is listed both in the program and the press release as being from Follies, which is partially correct. It is from Follies, but it was only sung in the London production (1986). It was sung by Phyllis, the sophisticated, prickly society dame, singing about philosophical musings on deeply hidden thoughts and feelings. It was sung by Diana Rigg (who played Phyllis), as a strip tease. She started fully dressed and ended with only a short towel covering her.

And in Marry Me A Little it’s She who sings the title song to He, when in the original show, Company, it would have been sung by a man, Bobby, the troubled, charming central character.

The production of Marry Me A Little is beautifully designed by Ken MacDonald. It’s a small studio apartment in Brooklyn. The radiator is grungy. There are windows that can open and let in the ambient sound outside. There is only beer in He’s fridge and he guzzles it often during the show. MacDonald puts us right in that world.

Director Adam Brazier is passionate about Sondheim. He has lovely touches. When He orders Chinese he takes the food out of the bag and flinches at the heat of the containers. Liked that touch.  Brazier obviously wants to show off the songs of this master to their best advantage. I just wish he would have had less business and more stillness. The two characters scurry around that set like whirling dervishes. They jump, run, hop, move furniture, put on slippers, take off shoes; He gets endless bottles of beer out of that old fridge; he sings while constantly writing down notes. You want to say “STOP! Settle. Sing the song without fuss, just once.”

As He, Adrian Marchuk has style and stage presence for days. He has a strong voice and a keen understanding of Sondheim’s lyrics and songs. He understands the subtlety and nuance of the lyrics and how to sing them. She is played by Elodie Gillett. Sondheim is not her forte. Her voice is on the shrill side. She sings most of the songs with a winning smile without seeming to realize the depth or irony of the lyrics. “The Girls of Summer” is a case in point. Buoyant, smiley, almost sunny, without a hint of knowing it won’t end well, even thought the lyrics are clear it won’t.  “Can That Boy Foxtrot” is full of sass, edge and wit, but not the way that Gillett sings it. And her timing is off, which doesn’t help the song at all.

The gifted Paul Sportelli is the musical director. I wish he had helped Gillett more with vocal coaching. All in all a disappointing production.

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