She’s a poor little rich girl, about to turn 30 and engaged to a creep. He’s the same age, still living with and working for his dad. They meet not so much cute as desperate, after a brief phone call reveals her fiancé’s philandering.
East Village by way of Old City
A New York love story follows – one bred in Old City Philadelphia, home base to “multidisciplinary artist” Michael Biello and composer Dan Martin, longtime partners in art and life. Marry Harry, which opened Thursday, is their latest musical and off-Broadway debut, and it’s as charming as it is deliberately contrived.
The show unfolds in the East Village, where the titular Little Harry cooks at Big Harry’s Italian restaurant. Still eager to grow the family business, the father dreams up a wacky, globe-spanning menu, unaware his son has applied for a gig as sous chef at a tonier place. Across the street, uptown gal Sherri peruses a bridal shop while her controlling mother, Francine, stays glued to her cell phone, making wedding and honeymoon arrangements. “Siri! Call Marie Bonsard at the Ritz Paris,” Francine barks, while Sherri, not yet disenchanted, sings dreamily of her impending life as a newlywed. Footsteps away, Little Harry croons just as rapturously about the celebrity chef who may soon be his boss.
The four are trailed by a trio of performers called – wait for it – the Village Voices, who can only be seen and heard by the audience, we’re assured. They assume various guises throughout the production, from angels to Italian grandmas wielding cooking utensils.
Sweet and occasionally sour
If your teeth are starting to hurt, relax. Marry Harry serves corn with a disarmingly light touch – and, just as crucially, without condescension. Jennifer Robbins, a veteran producer and screenwriter and newbie librettist, provides a book that matches the whimsical, guileless spirit of Biello’s lyrics and Martin’s melodies, which (despite their occasional meandering) can be sprightly and poignant. When Little Harry, basking in the afterglow of his sudden, alcohol-fueled hookup with Sherri, gushes, “You’re the kind of woman I never thought in a million years would be caught dead with someone like me,” we wince for him, not at him.
Other moments are potentially even more cringe-inducing: In the song “Thirty,” Francine laments her daughter’s declining fertility (“Your beautiful eggs / soon will be depleted”), and there’s a joke about Sherri’s dad – who in midlife dumped Francine and bought a boat – that references offshore drilling. (Little Harry’s other parent left even earlier; he was raised without a mom, like a Disney protagonist.)
But director/choreographer Bill Castellino and his cast and design team stay true to Marry Harry’s creator, maintaining a raw, unapologetic tenderness and a let’s-put-on-a-show zeal that’s manifest in everything from James Morgan’s spare, fanciful sets, which evoke crayon drawings by gifted children, to the winning performances.
Among the latter, Lenny Wolpe’s warm, weathered Big Harry is a standout – and an ideal foil to Robin Skye’s brassier and more brittle Francine (who, of course, turns out to be more than a well-heeled kvetch in the end). The actors playing the younger might-be couple are effortlessly likable; David Spadora makes Little Harry’s repressed ambition and romantic insecurity palpable without overwhelming us. As Sherri, Morgan Cowling also reveals a ripe musical-theater soprano, capable of both silvery high notes and supple belting.
Whether Little Harry and Sherri live happily ever after remains an open question, as do the fates of their unattached parents, for that matter. As Marry Harry clocks in at just under 90 minutes, perhaps there wasn’t time to ignite sparks between another unlikely pair – or maybe Biello, Martin, and Robbins just thought that would be really pushing it. But it says something about the creative team’s ability to suspend disbelief and deliver pleasure that this farfetched tale works as well as it does.