According to the production notes for "Marry Me a Little"--the Craig Lucas and Norman Rene musical revival of rarely heard Stephen Sondheim songs at South Coast Repertory--Sondheim's "Company" originally ended with an ironical, marriage-is-hell song called "Happily Ever After." It was cut as being too much of a downer.
But it's just the kind of song one might expect to surface in a Craig Lucas play--especially his latest, "Prelude to a Kiss," playing next door on South Coast's main stage. In that play, a marriage goes instantly sour through no fault of the bride and groom. In "Marry Me a Little," Lucas and Rene bring back 19 tunes Sondheim dropped from various shows and try to refashion them into a tale of a single man and woman meeting, courting, marrying and breaking up.
Compared to "Prelude's" somewhat artificial happy ending, "Marry Me" appears to take the more adult approach to relationships. But it never comes together as a story, betraying the fact that it was Lucas' first attempt (in 1980) to conceive a theater piece.
South Coast's coupling of the two works, however, offers a rare chance to see a writer's growth over eight years. (For the full effect, see "Marry Me" first.)
For Sondheim fans, it's a chance to hear a songwriter growing: from the undemanding comedy of "Pour le Sport," a tune from the '50s, to the power of the title tune, dropped from "Company."
The problem is that we're always conscious of the collection of tunes--how dated or how fresh they are. Seldom do we become lost in the tale of the Man (Robert Yacko) and the Woman (Sarah Tattersall), as they connect, meet and part.
Their story often works most effectively in Jules Aaron's production in the silent moments--he staring at an empty page stuck into his typewriter, she wandering about the Flatbush apartment with her shampooed hair wrapped in a towel. When they enter the first time, busying themselves with chores and unaware of the other (at this point, they're neighbors), it speaks volumes about the loneliness of the single life.
The songs speak as well, due to Tattersall and Yacko (who led a glimmering Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" two years ago). Both sing with impassioned commitment. Her version of the title tune brings the show to life.
The passion gets them past such odd insertions as "Bang!" (from "A Little Night Music") and "In the Movies"--perfectly fine songs, meant to suggest the characters' fantasy lives. But, in the context of what's come before, they feel like the wrong fantasies imagined by the wrong characters. Yacko's man isn't the type who would picture himself as Valentino, but there he is, waving a cape around.
"Marry Me a Little" is really a revue in search of a new form, unlike "Side by Side With Sondheim" (done on this same stage in 1980), which is a revue with no trimmings. The latter was celebratory, while "Marry Me" is stuck with the wrong form but the right idea: how to musicalize the mind of isolated urbanites while conveying Sondheim's theme of loss.
Brian Gale's lights work the reality-fantasy shifts better than the song selections, and D. Martyn Bookwalter's apartment gives off a rich New York aroma. Diane King's fluid piano is all the accompaniment that's needed in this world of lonely people.
Performances are at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 p.m. , Saturdays, 3 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m., until Feb. 28. Tickets: $19-$24; (714) 957-4033.