Monday, January 14, 2013

Side bi Side by Sondheim

Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in Marry Me a Little.  I think they're both heterosexual here.
You know what's great about Boston theatre right now?  The talent pool has gotten so deep that even when shows don't really work, they somehow kind of work anyway.

Take Stephen Sondheim's Marry Me a Little (at the New Rep through January 27). Director Ilyse Robbins has decided to experiment with this intimate little revue, which was conjured after the triumph of Sweeney Todd to showcase the "trunk songs" cut from previous Sondheim efforts.

Now back in 1980, the original creative team (Craig Lucas and Norman René) teased from the melancholy of this material a winsome tale of two singles singing to themselves of love when the only thing keeping them apart was the common wall of their respective apartments.  (The kicker was that in the end, they didn't even meet!)

Revivals have since toyed with that concept - one recent version ditched the original's hetero beard completely and featured two gay men.  But Robbins has instead doubled the initial couple to a quartet, and turned some (but not all) of these numbers into same-sex torch songs.  (Which, let's be honest, they probably were when old Stevie first hummed them to himself!)  So now I guess the revue could be called "Gay-Marry Me a Little."

Ba-doom-boom!  All right, settle down, I know I shouldn't snicker.  But the thing is - well, a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium.  Being gay got a little boring to a lot of people.  Even some gay people.  Maybe even to a few fundamentalists!

So somehow Robbins' innovative new take . . . well, it seems designed for middle-aged straights who are, you know, all "down with the gays."  Not that there's anything wrong with that!  And it is a sweet gesture.  But us actual gays, I think, are gonna be wondering, "So - are they all like in a bisexual bathhouse, or what?"  Because one minute the guys are singing to girls, and the next they're singing to other guys, and then they're back singing to the girls again (who are sometimes singing to each other). Are they different characters from song to song?, we wonder vaguely - or are they just jumping the fence over and over?  (I mean I had a boyfriend like that back in college, and things did not work out!)

Still, props to Robbins and the New Rep for you know, being down with us queers - and it doesn't really matter if the concept is a little confusing; the performers make it work song by song. Which brings me back to my first point - once again I've found myself watching a cast that easily negotiated issues and funny twists that would have sent Boston's best pros spinning only a decade ago. The quartet here - Aimee Doherty, Phil Tayler, Erica Spyres and newcomer Brad Daniel Peloquin - all have delightful voices and acting chops to spare.  Peloquin, often perched on the top level of a sprawling set, sometimes had projection issues (the actors were wearing mikes, but the amplification, if it was there at all, was blessedly subtle) - but in general the singing was wonderful, and the vignettes accompanying the songs ran the gamut from haunting to hilarious.

Boston's most fabulous leading lady? Photo(s) by Andrew Brilliant.
Doherty (at left) was in particularly fine form throughout; this lovely lady has matured into our most confidently fabulous musical comedy star. She has it all - a glorious belt, sparkling top notes, and a delicious comic swagger - plus a special kind of girlfriend-sympathy with director Robbins' witty but broad gags.  Thus her take on "Saturday Night" (from the early Sondheim opus of the same name) was a poignant and priceless delight.

But if Doherty was all bright, polished brass, then Spyres was pure gold, once more delivering a kind of glowing sweetness in her vocals (when she wasn't accompanying the rest of the cast on violin!). She perhaps shone brightest in the heart-breaking "Rainbows," a duet she shared with musical-comedy soulmate Phil Tayler, who now has worked opposite her in three shows in a row, and who is also an astonishingly sincere and versatile performer.  This is (if anyone's counting) the fourth riveting performance from Tayler within a year; here he almost whispers a few songs, a move that would be daring if he didn't have the kind of presence that can focus the attention of an entire house.  As I mentioned, Peloquin seemed the least technically assured of the quartet - but if anything he was actually closest to the Sondheim "type," and when he found his vocal power, his delicate, flexible tenor was beautifully pure.  All four found accomplished support in the double-piano accompaniment of David McGory and Todd C. Gordon, who seemed to be playing away in their own apartments (in a clever stroke, their neighbors would occasionally bang on the walls when things got too loud).

The songs themselves, of course, will fascinate the composer's fans, but also appeal to those less familiar with the arc of his achievement. Tunes like "Happily Ever After" tease the Sondheim specialist with their echoes of hits like "Being Alive;" meanwhile curiosities like "Pour le Sport" remind us of just how quirky his lyrics could become.  But numbers laced with double entendres, like "Can That Boy F-oxtrot!" are a kind of universal musical-theatre language, and I think Sondheim's torch songs smolder for everybody.  In the end, that's Robbins' point: heartbreak feels the same whoever is the cause.

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