It takes great determination and no little effort to screw up “Marry Me a Little,” the charming 1980 pocket musical that Craig Lucas and the late Norman Rene cleverly engineered from songs that were cut from Stephen Sondheim musicals. Without reconfiguring the dialogue-free storyline about two lonely strangers who are destined to meet (after pouring out their hearts in song), helmer and Keen Company a.d. Jonathan Silverstein manage to make some spectacularly bad choices — starting with the decision to hook up these sensitive souls to social networking websites.
Single New Yorkers who live in luxurious digs overlooking the High Line can feel just as depressed as singletons who are still trying to get out of the Rockaways. So there was really no need for Steven C. Kemp to design such a dreary dump of a set to represent the two studio apartments inhabited by Him (Jason Tam) and Her (Lauren Molina).
“If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” (plucked from “Evening Primrose” and new to this production) neatly captures that state of emotional vertigo common to new renters as they survey their empty apartments, torn between a delicious sense of freedom and stark terror. And that lacerating lyric to “Saturday Night” — “When you’re alone on a/Saturday night/You might as well be/Dead!” — taps into the morose mood shared by this would-be poet and his upstairs neighbor.
But instead of allowing these happy/unhappy youngsters to explore their conflicted feelings through their assigned songs, Silverstein encourages them to take their cues from their laptops and smartphones. That sounds like a small concession to make in the cause of updating the material. It isn’t; on the contrary, being plugged in does real damage to both the singers and their songs.
Two numbers cut from “Follies” are early casualties. In “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” Sondheim turns a sexual memory into a bit of naughty fun for his lonely girl. Here, the song is motivated by a message on the girl’s cellphone that sends the character into a virtual sexual frenzy and pushes Molina beyond her comfort zone. Tam (“Lysistrata Jones”) is brought down by “Bring on the Girls,” in a vulgar interpretation inspired by what appears to be a porn site on his laptop.
Molina, who played a mournful cello in John Doyle’s eccentric revival of “Sweeney Todd” and turns to that instrument for comfort here, has a clear, true soprano voice that hastens her recovery from the indignity of over-selling “Foxtrot.” She also has the intelligence to appreciate the multiple layers of meaning in the tricky lyrics of show-title songs like “Girls of Summer” and the jaw-dropping “Marry Me a Little.”
Tam has the double burden of a too-youthful appearance and a too-light tenor voice, which don’t play into the sophisticated wit of songs like “Happily Ever After” (a “Company” cut) and “Ah, But Underneath,” written specifically for Diana Rigg in the London version of “Follies” and a new addition to this production. But what really undoes him is having to play much of the show bare-chested, like some juicy piece of eye candy.
Duets are grueling for performers with little personal chemistry to begin with and forced to pretend they can’t see one another. But at the end of the show, when this lonely boy and girl are finally allowed to meet, Tam and Molina seize the moment and make us melt with “Rainbows” (destined for the unmade movie of “Into the Woods” and performed here for the first time) and the devastating “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” (which never made it into “Follies”).
Thankfully, we don’t have to watch them going back to their laptops and smartphones.