presented by New Repertory Theatre
songs by Stephen Sondheim
conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene
directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins
musical direction by David McGrory
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Watertown) As a songwriter, Stephen Sondheim is better than you. He just is.
He mastered the art of straightforward musicals with West Side Story and he’s been toying with us ever since. After figuring out what sappy audiences want in a love song, he’s been not giving it to them, choosing instead to dwell in the tensions and the ambiguities of our romantic natures in lovely, sonic dissonance.
Listening to Sondheim’s repertoire in the musical revue Marry Me a Little, currently being staged by the New Repertory Theatre, is like taking a master class in songwriting with Sondheim, with melodies that feel both familiar and haunting, easy on the ear and flat-out wrong. Lovers clash musically with competing versions of a fairy tale or declare their undying devotion as long as it doesn’t cost too much. All this musical discomfort can be overwhelming musically without dialogue to temper it; even a Dear John letter has familiar words for the hurt heart to find refuge. In the revue, there is nowhere to hide.
New Repertory’s imaginative production, the first sanctioned gender-neutral staging of this revue, includes four superb actors and two gifted pianists as our guides through this class. Director Ilyse Robbins and scenic designer Erik Diaz have teamed up to underscore Sondheim’s vision of a tender, self-imposed trap. The action transpires in four New York City apartments, as the characters settle down uncomfortably for a long Saturday night alone. With each song, the four characters long for or flee from one other, with ever-shifting romantic alliances to underscore the restless spirit of the human heart.
The production creates its own messy ambiguity by trying to bridge the gap between revue and musical. Robbins’ attempts to fill in backstory to explain the tangled web of songs only underscores the revue’s lack of plot. It’s enough to have to discern the fickle human heart that Sondheim’s songs uncover without having to wrestle with the ever-changing and ultimately illegible connections between the characters. The overall effect is a kind of uncomfortable overload that makes one want to go home and watch a two-star romantic comedy afterwards.