Marry Me a Little continues at the St James Studio Theatre, London until 10 August.
The chemistry between extravagantly talented Laura Pitt-Pulford and the perfectly-pitched Simon Bailey in this slight but charming two-hander turns a reed-thin storyline of New York love and loss, ecstasy and regret, into a hypnotic Sondheim hour that passes all too quickly.
Conceived in 1980 as a late-night entertainment, Marry Me a Little combines lesser-known Sondheim material from early shows like Saturday Night with discards and out-takes from big hits like Follies, A Little Night Music and Company.
This 17-song anthology came about when Sondheim casually said to Craig Lucas, one of the original Sweeney Todd ensemble, that he had masses of unpublished and, in some cases, unperformed stuff going to waste in a drawer.
Lucas later asked permission to turn these offcuts into a themed show, Sondheim sent him 45 to choose from, saying he thought it was a terrible idea but to give it a go anyway. The result was a two-month critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway run playing to packed houses and a quick reappearance for 96 more performances the following year.
In order to make this rare revival work in the small studio space available at St James, director Hannah Chissick has had to tinker a bit with the story that Lucas and his director sidekick Norman Rene came up with, but as the original was a not-very-convincing peg on which to hang the work of a genius anyway, that is no hardship.
Those, like me, who saw Marry Me a Little in an Off-Broadway 99-seater in 2012 might be somewhat confused by the opening ten minutes, but as it hasn’t been done professionally in London this century, the vast majority of the audience will be none the wiser about Chissick’s concept change.
Some songs have always sat less than comfortably in this trumped-up format yet still make you want to hear them in the correct context – and not all of them are vintage Sondheim. But even Sondheim at 85 per cent beats practically everybody else at 100 per cent, particularly if you are an addict, which most of the audience on this occasion appeared to be.
It is always going to be about the songs, not the story of Him and Her (neither character is given a name), and each and every one has an interesting history.
Some, like Follies reject ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot!’ – which gives full rein to Pitt-Pulford’s funny-voice acting skills – and ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’ (axed from but later reinstated to Anyone Can Whistle), have found their niche on the cabaret circuit.
And the early success of this mini-revue must have had something to do with the title song being reintroduced as the Act I finale to a revamped Company a decade later.
Pitt-Pulford’s range, from the comedy of ’Foxtrot’ to the bitter-sweetness of ‘Trumpets’ and the sizzling bluesiness of ‘The Girls of Summer’ (written for a 1956 play of the same name starring Shelley Winters), is a real eye-opener.
Loveably warm and coquettish, she is hard to resist but ‘It Wasn’t Meant to Happen’, another Follies folly but still terrific, and Bailey’s understated, wistful final word on the subject – at least for the time being – sends us home caring about how life would pan out for both.
This delicate, enchanting piece, with MD David Randall’s masterful accompaniment a subtle delight, more than makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity and as one New York critic said of the original: “Short, smart and sweet!”