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October 5, 2012

TT: The girl upstairs

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the Keen Company's off-Broadway revival of Marry Me a Little and the Broadway premiere of Grace. Here's an excerpt.

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First performed in 1980, "Marry Me a Little" is a 70-minute-long miniature musical--one set, two actors and a pianist--concocted by Craig Lucas and Norman René. The plot, in which two young apartment dwellers who live on adjacent floors of the same building (Lauren Molina and Jason Tam) dream of finding romantic partners, is as simple and ingenious as is the musical concept. The score consists of little-known songs by Stephen Sondheim, most of which were cut from his shows prior to their New York openings. Neither character speaks a word: Mr. Sondheim does all the work, and does it with his customary virtuosity. It's quite a trick to uproot his impecccably theatrical songs from their original context and transplant them into a new one, but "Marry Me a Little" pulls the feat off so skillfully that you'd think they'd been written to fit together.

marryme0011.jpgMr. Tam is an affable, nice-looking gent who makes a pleasing onstage impression. Ms. Molina, who played Johanna to perfection in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," is something else again, a quirky, angular beauty with a sharp-edged sense of humor whose limbs look as though they're made of taffy. I last saw her on stage four months ago in the San Diego premiere of "Nobody Loves You" and delighted in her comic energy. She's just as funny in "Marry Me a Little," but what you'll remember here is the intense wistfulness with which she puts across Mr. Sondheim's famously ambivalent ballads ("Keep a tender distance/So we'll both be free/That's the way it ought to be"). Not only does she nail the title song, but I've never heard a more affecting performance of "There Won't Be Trumpets." Might Ms. Molina be poised for musical-comedy stardom? It certainly looks that way.

The world has changed greatly since 1980, of course, and Jonathan Silverstein, the director of this revival, has changed "Marry Me a Little" accordingly. In addition to moving the action of the show into the age of smartphones and sexting, he's toyed with the score, dropping three songs and adding four others, in all cases to excellent effect....

Like "Marry Me a Little," Craig Wright's "Grace" takes place on a single set that is meant to represent two identical apartments. That, alas, is all that the two shows have in common. Mr. Wright's play, which bounced around the regionals for years before reaching Broadway, is a complacent, toothless jeremiad that seeks to skewer modern-day Christians who think that Jesus died to make them rich ("Dear Lord, we just come before you now to thank you for bringing us this amazing opportunity"). It's the kind of play in which these benighted Babbitts are portrayed as sexually inhibited fatheads who say "heck" a lot....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted October 5, 2012 12:00 AM

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