Merrily We Roll Along
- Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Book by Peter George Furth
- Directed by Eric Schaeffer
- Produced by Signature Theatre
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
There are some shows that audiences love to hate. Merrily would seem to be the Sondheim show people hate to love.
How could a Stephen Sondheim show — with so many wonderful songs which have since been frequently recorded — fold on Broadway after 52 previews and 16 performances? You can’t not like “Old Friends,” “Like It Was,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Now You Know,” “Good Thing Going,” “Our Time,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” (Well, a couple bars of that last tune, anyway – bonus points if you know where.) Other Sondheim shows foundered, but perhaps not so spectacularly. And Merrily (1981) followed a string of critical hits: Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979).
At Signature, the lead trio Frank, Charlie and Mary (Will Gartshore, Erik Liberman, and Tracy Lynn Olivera) will knock your socks off. Of the three, Gartshore and Olivera are well known locally for many award-caliber roles. Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner (Urinetown and Assassins), Gartshore plays Franklin Shepard, a success-driven composer turned movie mogul. Olivera (Helen Hayes Award nominee for Signature’s Allegro and Olney’s Carousel) is Mary Flynn, an award winning writer who has let her infatuation with Frank as well as a bevy of insecurities fuel a downward spiral, transforming a sweet, optimistic young woman into a booze-swilling, acid-tongued critic a la Dorothy Parker. Fresh from Broadway’s LoveMusik, Liberman is perfectly cast as the earnest family man, Charlie Kringas. People who were fortunate to see Raul Esparza as Charlie in the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration will be pleased to see another actor shine in the demanding song, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” while providing much needed sympathy and sincerity throughout the show to neutralize a bit of the acid.
Some critics feel that the musical is inherently flawed in at least three ways. They hold that the complexity of the show is too confusing for an audience. In light of Harold Pinter’s acclaimed play, Betrayal, which appeared on Broadway two years earlier than Merrily, and was released as a successful film two years after Merrily closed, I find that doubtful. Pinter used the same plot device of unfolding the story in reverse chronological order. Audiences can rise to the occasion of an innovative storyline structure.
Some claim that the characters are unredeemably unlikeable and that they just plain alienate the audience. The Kaufman and Hart play of the same name on which the musical is based is specifically designed to counter the personality flaws evident in the mature characters; a show which would seem increasingly cynical and oppressive as the characters aged becomes progressively more optimistic and hopeful as it regresses in time. Sondheim’s music complements the theme perfectly when the song “Not a Day Goes By,” first performed by Frank’s wife Beth (played by Bayla Whitten) as a painful lament following their divorce hearing, is reprised several scenes later as a profession of enduring love at their wedding. I think the last quarter or third of the show more than balances the bitterness of Act I.
A third factor often mentioned as a fatal flaw is the shear range of ages that the principal characters must span. This makes for some truly challenging casting, but director Eric Schaeffer has pulled together a team of performers with the required experience and talent. The intrepid trio of leads bring real depth to their characters and imbue the roles with humanity in all its strengths and frailties.
Tory Ross plays Gussie Carnegie, Broadway star and home wrecker. She knows what she wants and she’s unashamed to go after it, even when the object of desire is a younger married man with a young son. Ross appeared in Schaeffer’s Kennedy Center production of Mame, and we can only hope that she becomes a DC regular. She’s brash and brassy and radiates enough energy to light all of downtown. Local favorite Christopher Block plays husband #3 to Gussie, Joe. He worships the ground that she kicks him around on. He’s very funny in the “Opening Doors” musical sequence, expressing interest in Frank and Charlie’s music, just wishing they could write a humm-able melody (echoing the criticism Sondheim himself hears frequently) and nails the point singing, “I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit.”
The set is spare and modern. Minimal furniture. A piano just off center stage. A luminescent staircase rises from stage to dress circle providing a stunning visual focal point. As Frank enters the set in the first scene and sits at the piano, I was reminded of John Doyle’s Company recently on Broadway.
This set works to keep the characters front and center. Robert Perdziola’s costumes for the women (Mary, Gussie and Beth) are good; in fact, Gussie’s dazzles in green. The remaining costumes, unfortunately, are a garish distraction. Karma Kamp’s choreography provides the bridge between scenes and provides many fine moments. With repetition, however, one begins to feel as though transported to Sweet Charity‘s Pompeii Club. Too much of a good thing.
Ultimately, Signature’s Merrily We Roll Along is musically delicious but, unfortunately, somewhat awkwardly staged. Nevertheless, this superb cast lets the heart of the musical shine through.
Merrily We Roll Along continues thru Oct 14th at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703 820-9771 or visit the website.