Stephen Sondheim’s discard pile is any other musical-theater composer’s treasure trove. That’s the attitude, anyway, that led Craig Lucas and Norman René to cobble together a two-actor musical in 1980 from songs Sondheim cut from the final versions of Follies, A Little Night Music and Company, among other shows. The plot suggested by the resulting sung-through revue: Two lonely hearts types, alone in their apartments on adjacent floors of the same building, imagine reaching out to each other and the entire potential relationship that could follow, but all remains fantasy.
Director Jess McLeod and Porchlight Music Theatre, with Sondheim’s permission, have updated the show to intriguing effect (as have many, if not most, other productions since Marry Me a Little’s initial debut). Working with Austin Cook, who pulls quadruple duty as one of the show’s two actors as well as its music director, orchestrator and sometimes onstage pianist, McLeod and company have pulled so-called “trunk songs” cut from later shows such as Into the Woods and Merrily We Roll Along, as well as numbers culled from more recently unearthed artifacts like the 1966 TV musical Evening Primrose, while also reordering some of the songs already present.
This iteration of the show, in my reading of it (though interpretations are certainly arguable), jettisons the fantasy conceit to instead depict the beginning, middle and unfortunate end of a real relationship between Cook’s songwriter character (as in Porchlight’s 2015 Sondheim on Sondheim, Cook is bearded and outfitted to suggest Sondheim himself) and Bethany Thomas’s photographer neighbor.
This in-the-round production and its new set list, then, give us two of Chicago’s most talented actor-musicians getting to sink their teeth into a rollercoaster of a story arc—Frankensteined together as it may be—as well as songs penned for shows that neither of these distinctive performers would necessarily be thought of for by any but the most creative casting directors. But what a pleasure it is to see Thomas, with her uniquely broad and powerful vocal range, make a comic meal out of playing the Follies cut song “Can That Boy Foxtrot” as a he-said/she-said while swiping on Tinder. Ditto seeing Cook, best known as a music director who occasionally acts, really dig into a meaty role. You’re bound to find yourself rooting for these two types who you too rarely see matched up onstage to make it.
If the transitions are occasionally jarring—the introduction of the Into the Woods cut number “Second Midnight,” the first 1980s composition to follow nearly a dozen songs written in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, does feel a bit like a record scratch—Sondheim’s own recurring romantic (or anti-romantic) themes help the show to cohere. “We're gonna be different from all the rest,” goes a typical, hopeful/cynical line from the song “Honey,” a remnant of Merrily We Roll Along. Isn’t that what we all want?
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René. Directed by Jess McLeod. With Bethany Thomas, Austin Cook. Running time: 1hr 10mins; no intermission.