The Cincinnati Playhouse has offered a steady diet of musicals by Stephen Sondheim over the past decade. If you’ve seen them, you might think you’re familiar with music by the legendary composer/lyricist. I have news for you: The current Shelterhouse production, Marry Me a Little, will feel like a new show, full of songs that are clearly Sondheim’s but seldom heard.
The show, which originated in 1980, is made up of 17 “trunk songs,” tunes written for un-produced shows or cut from productions before opening night. It was originally presented in a small Off-Off Broadway theater, featuring its “organizer,” actor Craig Lucas, who met Sondheim during the original production of Sweeney Todd. Sondheim gave the actor access to his notes and music and worked closely with him in creating the show, which featured Lucas and an actress as two people alone on a Saturday night in adjacent New York apartments.
Guest director Stafford Arima and his Playhouse cast, Sally Wilfert and Ben Eakeley, take this collection of songs and give it the atmosphere of everyday life for two single people yearning for love but not quite finding it. Beowulf Boritt’s clever set is one compact New York City apartment with two entrances and an overlapping kitchen counter; music director Lynne Shankel accompanies from a grand piano in her upstairs apartment. The characters are unnamed: Her apartment is neat, feminine and tastefully decorated; his is cluttered, masculine and without style.
Their distinctions are immediately established with the opening song, “Two Fairy Tales” (written for two characters in A Little Night Music). It’s one story from two counterpointed perspectives: hers is romantic, his cynical.
This defines their views on romance explored in Marry Me a Little. Wilfert, a zaftig, open-faced blonde, plays a woman a little past her prime who yearns for love. Eakeley, a lanky actor with subtly comic potential, inhabits a guy not quite ready for commitment but sensing something missing from his life.
They imagine many possible relationships and feelings, sometimes solo, sometimes as parallel duets and occasionally with one actor fulfilling a role in the other’s fantasy. The poignant song “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” offers a wistful conclusion to the show, which clocks in at just a few minutes over an hour without an intermission.
A full gamut of feelings is surveyed — and sometimes directly juxtaposed, as with the lovely “All Things Bright and Beautiful” which brackets the cynical “Bang!” Wilfert has two especially powerful moments: the title song and the emotional revelation of “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” a song that suggests being realistic might be the best path to happiness.
Drawing together songs from disparate shows might seem an unusual path to a coherent piece of theater, but Marry Me a Little has a lovely arch of emotion, from hope to desperation to a kind of satisfied resignation. That spectrum epitomizes the themes in many of Sondheim’s musicals, especially Company, from which Marry Me a Little’s title song was drawn, in addition to the acerbic “Happily Ever After,” describing an imagined existence that’s anything but happy. (The better-known song, “Being Alive,” eventually replaced these initial efforts.)
The show is little more than a list of songs, so it requires a director with the vision to make it all hang together. Arima has done this in numerous ways, choreographing the actors’ physical interaction and finding many moments when they respond to one another without physically connecting. The pair never actually meet, but there are funny moments when they speculate about life in an imagined relationship, especially “Pour le Sport,” a song about playing golf that Arima has translated into a thinly veiled (and I do mean thinly) sexual encounter.
Marry Me a Little is a show for Sondheim fans and musical theater lovers. It offers something old and a lot that feels very new.
MARRY ME A LITTLE, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through June 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.