NEW YORK — Hearing rare songs by Stephen Sondheim sung naturally on stage, without microphones, is a musical theater-lover's treat. The Keen Company is beautifully presenting just such a confection, with their sparkling revival of "Marry Me A Little," a two-person revue that hasn't been performed in New York in 25 years.
Keen's lilting interpretation of the so-called trunk show, originally conceived and developed in 1980 by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at Theatre Row. The revue features 11 songs that were cut from major Sondheim hits, including six cut from "Follies," and for a change of pace, several songs that did make it into various musicals. There's even a lovely, rueful number called "Rainbows" from the unmade film version of "Into the Woods."
These eclectic songs by Sondheim, a legend in the American musical theater and one who somehow makes cynicism refreshing, are skillfully woven into a dialogue-free story about two lonely young people yearning for love. The songs are beautifully sung and enacted by Lauren Molina and Jason Tam, and directed with fresh, lively interpretations by Keen's artistic director, Jonathan Silverstein. Musical director John Bell is on the piano.
Tam and Molina play contemporary Brooklyn neighbors who've never met. In their separate apartments, they inventively conduct everyday activities and then an imaginary courtship, while performing Sondheim's poignant, sophisticated songs. Thanks to a fluid, open scenic design by Steven C. Kemp, and Silverstein's graceful staging, the pair smoothly interact and perform duets that flow between their two apartments.
Silverstein generally sets a classy, polished tone, except for some too-literal action during the otherwise strong duet "Bang," which was cut from "A Little Night Music." There's some lovely dancing and spirited choreography by Dan Knechtges, adding to carefree and romantic numbers.
Tam, a strong singer, performs with confidence and grace, easily projecting ambivalence, yearning or any emotion called for. Molina, winsome and touching, has a lovely, clear soprano voice that's occasionally drowned out by the over-enthusiastic piano. She sings a stirring version of the exuberant "There Won't Be Trumpets" from "Anyone Can Whistle." Their duets together are delightful, especially the romantic "A Moment With You."
The Keen libretto cleverly contrasts certain songs, as when Molina sings the impossibly hopeful number, "Marry Me a Little" followed by Tam performing the bitter "Happily Ever After," both cut from "Company."
This enchanting 70-minute show flies by all too quickly, an experience to be treasured by those who can never get enough of Sondheim's beautiful melodies, deep human insight and diamond-sharp wit.