Give the New Repertory Theatre credit for finding new theatrical life — and meaning — in a collection of old songs. Marry Me a Little was conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene as a two-singer musical revue showcase for Stephen Sondheim's lesser-known work, and after its 1980 off-off-Broadway debut it had two more New York airings, most recently last year off-Broadway. Some of the 18 songs were written for musicals that never came to fruition, while others were cut from famous Sondheim pieces like Follies, A Little Night Music, and Company. Unsurprisingly, even Sondheim's reject pile contains beautiful music, combining biting lyrical wit with a spellbinding score.
New Repertory Theatre tweaks the original format, giving us two couples — one older, one younger — and mixing and matching them so that some of these mostly love songs can be sung by a same-sex couple. The show's opener, "Two Fairy Tales," features a boy and a girl, both twentysomethings, singing about a knight and a princess in a far off time and place. Then their middle-aged upstairs neighbors, also a man and a woman, hop onstage for the next number. Eventually, the two women sing a sultry number ("The Girls of Summer") to one another, and the men burst into an achingly melancholy romantic duet ("So Many People"). With this simple twist, the production takes on another dimension, reaching beyond the original concept, which depicted two straight New Yorkers home alone on a Saturday night. Without forcing the point, director and choreographer Ilyse Robbins and her music director, David McGrory, have universalized the "story" these songs tell and given them added resonance.
And New Rep's four singing actors — Aimee Doherty, Brad Peloquin, Phil Tayler, and Erica Spyres — achieve a gorgeous blend. Spyres adds a special dynamic each time she plays the violin from her character's onstage bedroom, joining the two pianists who are cleverly incorporated as tenants in the characters' apartment building and serve as the orchestra.
But Marry Me a Little is still most remarkable for taking this essentially plot-less, dialogue-free revue and giving it real narrative heft. From their four separate segments of Eric Diaz's elegant set, these apartment-bound "ordinary" characters experiment and seem to experience more than most people will in a lifetime. With each number, the actors play with a different possibility, leaving us to wonder whether Man #1 truly loves Woman #2, or Man #2, or, hey, even one of the pianists.
MARRY ME A LITTLE:: Through January 27 :: Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St, Watertown :: $28-$58 :: 617.923.8487 or newrep.org