In the nearly half-century since Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” first won the hearts of audiences, the world has become a far less simplistic place. As a result, Chayefsky’s tale about the love affair between two wallflowers, first televised in 1953 and filmed in 1955, now seems naive and dated. Despite the participation of a team of Broadway pros, this polished new musical adaptation doesn’t solve that essential problem. Rupert Holmes’ book, Charles Strouse’s music and Lee Adams’ lyrics fail to bring anything new to, or to further illuminate, the Chayefsky script.
The musical’s best scene is its first, set on a busy Saturday afternoon near closing time at the Bronx butcher’s shop in which Marty works. Here, after a few quick, upbeat bars from the excellent 10-piece pit band under Joshua Rosenblum’s experienced baton, the production launches into its title number, with customers calling out Marty’s name as he serves them. With John C. Reilly as a likable, ordinary Marty, the character and the show’s Bronx/Italian milieu are immediately and firmly established.
Reilly may not be a Rod Steiger (TV) or an Ernest Borgnine (film), but he’s still invaluable in a reading very much based on their takes on the role. His singing, which sounds exactly like his speaking voice, is clearly projected, hits the right notes and makes sense of the lyrics. Only in the musical’s final song, “Wish I Knew a Love Song,” a waltz duet for Marty and his Clara, does Reilly’s lack of lyricism become a problem (and in any case, a lyrical Marty would be out of character the rest of the time).
Oddly, the production makes little of this duet, cutting it short, even though the song may be the nearest thing to a take-home tune in this efficient rather than memorable score. Strouse has absorbed Sondheim influences in his score, and in the more emotional moments of act two the music even teeters on the operatic. Don Sebesky and Larry Hochman have orchestrated the songs with flair.
Anne Torsiglieri is fine as the shy schoolteacher Marty loves, but her singing ability is limited. The timbre and vibrato of her voice are problematic. The musical’s two other important characters are Marty’s loving if smothering mother (Barbara Andres) and sourpuss aunt (Marilyn Pasekoff), who have an entertaining, well-done number, “Niente Da Fare” (even if in the midst of the prevailing Italian ethnicity it sounds Jewish). Other highlights of the score are a lusty large-cast “Life Is Sweet” number toward the end, and a very ’50s “Saturday Night Girl” for Marty’s buddies, which is reprised in act two complete with the men’s mythical conquests. Choreographer Rob Ashford makes amusing use of revolving stools and other furniture in a Bronx bar here.
Set designer Robert Jones has made a stylish virtue of simplicity by using an empty stage onto which pieces of scenery are propelled. And Jess Goldstein’s costumes evoke the period, including ballerina ballroom gowns, without being pedantic.
Structurally, the musical hews perhaps too closely to the original. What few plot changes have been wrought aren’t for the better. The ending, with Clara suddenly appearing on the scene, raffle ticket in hand, to claim Marty’s love, is too abrupt and underwritten. (Shouldn’t Marty be the one to instigate their declaration of love?)
Mark Brokaw’s direction is never less than sensitive, but if everyone involved had taken an entirely new approach to the Chayefsky material — extending even to the casting and portrayal of Marty — the results might have been invigorating, rather than merely familiarly pleasant.