My favorite East West Players shows are their productions of well-known plays and musicals which offer Asian-American actors the opportunity to tackle roles for which they might not normally be considered. Whether dramatic fare, like Proof or Equus, or musicals like Little Shop Of Horrors or pretty much all of the Sondheim oeuvre, or a play with music like Master Class, these are the productions which have left the strongest, best impressions on me.

Their current attraction is just such a production.

Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me A Little and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years are customarily presented as separate “evenings of theater,” albeit rather brief ones. (The former runs 65 minutes, the latter 80.) In a daring move, East West Players stages them back-to-back as a double feature, making this a bargain “two-shows-for-the-price-of-one” evening of great musical theater.

Each show is reviewed separately here. Together, they make up an unforgettable double bill.



For every dozen songs that make it into a Broadway musical, there are probably two or three—if not more—that got cut between the first workshop and opening night. Most of these songs are destined to remain in obscurity on the cutting room floor, that is unless the composer in question is Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s genius is such that even “deleted songs” are worthy of attention, or in the case of Marry Me A Little, a show of their own.

Conceived and developed in 1980 by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, Marry Me A Little follows two characters, known only as Man and Woman, over the course of a single day during which they go from being single to coupled and then back to being single again. There is no dialog in this song cycle. The lyrics (and staging) merely outline the “story,” leaving it to the audience to fill in the blanks.

Jules Aaron’s inventively directed and beautifully performed production at East West Players places both Man (Mike Dalager) and Woman (Jennifer Hubilla) side by side on John H. Binkley’s upper Westside apartment set, but we realize almost immediately that each is occupying a different space as they go about their daily activities oblivious of the other.

Some of Marry Me A Little’s songs will be familiar to those who collect Sondheim CDs. The title song has closed the first act of every production of Company since the 1990s, yet did not make it into the 1970 Broadway original. “There Won’t Be Trumpets” is found on the original cast recording of Anyone Can Whistle, but it was cut before the show’s nine performances on Broadway. The words “Someone to hold you too close. Someone to touch you too deep” are familiar from Company’s iconic “Being Alive” but they also open “Happily Ever After” (which “Being Alive” replaced before the show’s opening) with a completely different tune and rhythm. The melody for “All Things Bright And Beautiful” underscores several scenes in Follies, but the lyrics were not heard until Marry Me A Little. Finally, the three songs included from 1955’s Saturday Night are part of that show, but Saturday Night itself didn’t get staged until forty plus years after it was written, a decade and a half after Marry Me A Little’s first staging.

Other songs in the show’s 65 minutes will be pleasant discoveries, though easily recognizable as Sondheim creations.

“Two Fairy Tales” (cut from A Little Night Music) introduces us to our leads as they unpack groceries, their voices overlapping in their overlapping apartments: “She: Once upon a time. He: Once upon a time. She: There lived a princess. He: There lived a knight. She: Who was exceedingly beloved. He: Was devout.” As these lyrics suggest, if these two strangers are to find a connection, it will be because opposites attract.

Cut from Follies, “Can That Boy Foxtrot” has Hubilla unpacking vegetables, singing into a cucumber mike, a carrot boa wrapped around her shoulder, later donning a pair of oven mitts which she uses as boy/girl puppets. (This is all Aaron’s inspiration, as the libretto contains few stage directions.)

An “Aha!” moment comes when Dalager accompanies himself by beating on a wastebasket with a toilet plunger in “Bang,” the racket causing Hubilla to look up in irritation. Aha! He and She are upstairs-downstairs neighbors!

“The Girls Of Summer” (from an unproduced show of the same name) and “Uptown Downtown” (cut from Follies) have our hero and heroine executing a sexy jazz ballet (snappy additional choreography by Allison Bibicoff), He holding the plunger double entendre style, She donning a lampshade as a hat, though each remains in his or her own space.

Dinner by candlelight and the exquisite “So Many People” (from Saturday night) finally bring the couple together. “A Moment With You” (also from Saturday Night) has Dalager and Hubilla dancing a la Fred and Ginger, and “Marry Me A Little” (sung by Bobby in Company) here becomes a woman’s declaration, gloriously performed by Hubilla.

Sadly, there is no “Happily Ever After” for our couple; Dalager sings “Someone to need you too much. Someone to read you too well. That’s happily ever after. Ever ever ever after … in hell.” Not quite the happy ending we read about in fairy tales, is it? But that’s life.

Dalager and Hubilla perform Sondheim to perfection, dance with grace and flair, and convey entirely through song Man and Woman’s hopes and dreams, as well as the realities of their separate lives. Tall, lanky Dalager’s leading man charisma makes one hope to see much more of his work, and Hubilla is a charmer in her own right. They are accompanied flawlessly by musical director Marc Macalintal on piano and by guitarist Chris Spilsbury. (Keita Matsuno and Kazui Nakazawa are alternate guitarists.)

Binkley’s finely detailed set is dazzlingly lit by Jeremy Pivnick, moving from reality to Technicolor fantasy in many of the song sequences. Ivy Y. Chou’s costumes are a nice fit for each character and Dalager and Hubilla look great in them.

Sondheim fans will delight in hearing sixteen little known tunes with their clever, insightful lyrics, and just about any musical theater fan can take pleasure in seeing them brought to life by an ingenious director and his stellar cast. Marry Me A Little entertains … A Lot!



A man and a woman meet.  They fall in love.  They marry. They begin to have problems.  One of them cheats. They divorce.  

That’s life, but rather a bit depressing to be turned into a musical, right? After all, who wants to see a musical which ends unhappily ever after?

Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown found an ingenious way to tell just such a story in The Last Five Years, his semi-autobiographical tale of a 20something couple whose relationship fails to withstand the pressures of having one of them achieve professional success that the other is unable to.  Jamie’s story moves from his joy at finally meeting the “Shiksa Goddess” he’s been dreaming of, and ends with the painful realization that no matter how hard he tried, “I Could Never Rescue You.” Cathy, whose songs alternate with Jamie’s, begins “Still Hurting” from Jamie’s betrayal and ends with “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” sung just after the couple’s first date, when there were still countless tomorrows awaiting them. Joy and sadness side-by-side in an ending which packs an emotional wallop.

East West Players’ Asian-cast staging of The Last Five Years, powerfully directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera and exquisitely performed by Michael K. Lee and Jennifer Paz, wisely makes no attempt to “Asianize” Brown’s tale of a New York City Jew and the Shiksa Goddess he falls in love with. What it does is offer an acclaimed director a chance to put his stamp on this oft-performed musical (I’ve seen eight productions of TL5Y with a ninth coming up next month) and a supremely talented pair of performers the opportunity to appear in a show they might not normally get the chance to perform.

The resulting production is one of the best TL5Y’s I’ve seen, and easily one of the two or three best sung.

Every director puts his or her own stamp on The Last Five Years. A recent production found ways to keep Jamie and Cathy visible on stage throughout the show’s 80-minute running time, despite their being in different “time zones.”  In Rivera’s vision, Jamie mostly sings to an imagined Cathy, and vice versa. Sometimes this involves singing to an empty chair, sometimes to the air. The moments Jamie and Cathy share the stage are relatively few (except for the one time their stories intersect, halfway through, on their wedding day) and all the more powerful for their rareness.  When Jamie sings that “some people freeze out of fear that they’ll fail, but I keep rolling on,” we see would-be musical theater star Cathy examining her headshots.  (We learn later about Cathy’s unsuccessful attempts at a major, New York-based career.)

Rivera begins Jamie and Cathy’s wedding song, “The Next Ten Minutes,” as a picnic in Central Park, with Jamie facing 2 o’clock as he points out Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, and John Lennon’s. Cathy then joins him center stage, but facing 10 o’clock, as she assures him “I’m not always on time. Please don’t expect that from me. I will be late, but if you can just wait. I will make it eventually.” Even here, the director withholds Jamie and Cathy’s “together time” until the very last minute, so that when groom and bride finally turn to look at each other as Jamie asks Cathy “Will you share your life with me for the next ten lifetimes?” and Cathy responds “Forever,” and they embrace, the moment is earthshaking for having been delayed so long.

From here on, through Jamie’s eyes we see cracks starting to open in their marriage, while through Cathy’s we see their relationship becoming steadily more infused with the bliss of newfound love.  When an angry and disillusioned Jamie sings “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose because you can’t win,” standing by his side is a Cathy whose eyes reveal the joy of a woman who sees nothing but hope for the future.

The gorgeous Paz, who recently revived her career-making role as Kim in Miss Saigon—and nabbed the Ovation Award for it fifteen years after her first performance in the role—is clearly relishing the chance to show new sides of her talents here, something which she does … and then some!  In her opening number, “Still Hurting,” Paz’s pain is so palpable, you almost want to look away, yet you can’t. Later, she captures the ironic humor of “A Summer In Ohio” and gets laughs galore as Cathy auditions disastrously, singing “No don’t look at my resume I made up half my resume… why did I chose these shoes, why did I pick this song, why did I chose this career, WHY, does this pianist hate me?!”  Hilarious!  And boy does this gal have a voice! 

Lee’s stellar performance reveals all of Jamie’s goofy charm, the charisma which made him “the grand fromage” of the New York literary world, and the charm which won Cathy over.  Hearing Lee sing “The Schmuel Song” with a Yiddish accent is a particular delight.  Later, as Jamie’s story darkens, Lee’s “If I Didn’t Believe In You” and “Nobody Needs To Know” are heartbreaking.  And boy does this guy have a voice!
This is quite possibly the starkest fully-staged The Last Five Years I’ve seen.  A pair of black straight-backed chairs, a guitarist, musical director extraoridnaire Marc Macalintal at the grand piano, and a giant picture frame behind it all, onto which are projected images of various trees at various seasons.  That’s it.  Simple and spare … and effective indeed.

Jeremy Pivnick lights John H. Binkley’s set to perfection. (Binkley also designed the stunning projections.) Best of all are Ivy Y. Chou’s costumes, which take Jamie from white to gray to black, and Cathy from black to gray to white.  Easily the most inspired costume design I’ve seen in a TL5Y production.

For those who’ve never experienced The Last Five Years, East West Players’ production is an ideal introduction. For those like myself who’ve seen this beautiful, moving musical before, Rivera’s vision makes for a fresh new look at familiar material. Either way, these are eighty extraordinary minutes.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 12, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Michael Lamont

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