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A CurtainUp Review
Merrily We Roll Along

"Why is it old friends don't want old friends to change?" — Franklin Shepard Merrily We Roll Along
Aaron Lazar, Whitney Bashor. (Photo: Kevin Parry)
From where we now sit, something feels immeasurably quaint about two men and a woman, barely into their 20s, standing on a New York rooftop, looking out over a nighttime sky and telling the heavens, via song, that the world is at their feet: "Hear what's happening/We're what's happening."

Of course, context is everything. The singers are warbling their optimism in 1955, at the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily we Roll Along, after we have already witnessed what a dog's breakfast one of those singers has made of his life and of his friendship with the other two. Pretty much the only way a Sondheim musical doesn't end on a sour, wounded, or cautionary note is if, like Merrily, it is told backwards.

The bleakness, the unconventional dramatic structure and, yes, certainly the flaws within Harold Prince's original production collectively doomed Merrily during its 1981 Broadway run. Given its exalted provenance, regional companies have been trying to revive or reinvent Merrily ever since. Hence those were intriguing tidings, indeed, when the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts announced that director Michael Arden &emdash; fresh off his triumphant revival of Spring Awakening with Deaf West Theatre &emdash; would be tackling the show during his year as the Wallis's first artist-in-residence. Clearly Arden does not scare easily.

With this material, however, his audience might. As clear of focus as Arden's production is and as niftily as it showcases Sondheim's score, this is still a rough go. The Spring Awakening kids may have been "totally fucked," but by god they were going out with their guns blazing. Merrily is a stuffier, more closed-in show featuring largely unlikeable characters who feel like they were fleshed out more effectively in previous Sondheim offerings like Company and Follies.

Instead of the dissatisfaction of oppressed youth, the ironically titled Merrily gives us shattered idealism powering a weak narrative, the ending of which we already know. The production's six leads &emdash; a couple of whom are seriously miscast &emdash; are well into their 30s, and they spend much of the production looking broken or miserable as actors playing the ghosts of their younger selves chase each other giddily around the stage.

Music supervisor/conductor Matt Gould insures that Sondheim's score gets a sparkling exhibition. But not great characters.

The brightest star in the firmament is Franklin Shepard (played by Aaron Lazar), a game-changing musical-theater-composer-turned-sellout-movie-producer, who betrays his friends and his women with equal disregard. When we meet him in 1975, Frank is rich, powerful, married to Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie (Saycon Sengbloh), and estranged from everything and everybody who ever made him happy. Gussie threw over her first husband, Frank's producer Joe Josephson (Amir Talay), to be with Frank, who subsequently threw over his first wife Beth (Whitney Bashor) and son Frank Jr. (Maximus Brandon Verso) — and lived to regret it. Even worse, when Frank hit it big, he largely severed ties with his two oldest friends: his lyricist and writing partner Charley Kringas (Wayne Brady) and Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino), a writer-turned-drama-critic who has spent most of her life secretly in love with Frank.

While diverse, color-blind casting is always laudable, a few of Arden's players seem cast strongly against type and the urge to shift the pieces around kicks in immediately. Lazar, handsome and strong of voice though he is, can't pump enough charm into this talented cad to justify the play's contention that the world is perpetually falling at Frank's feet. A better choice for the role would have been Brady who, as he has demonstrated in Kinky Boots and a recent revival of Kiss me Kate should be no musical's nebbishy second banana. Brady does some impressive vocal acrobatics to get through the patter number "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and his tenor is on beautiful display in the lovely "Good Thing Going," but we don't get enough of him. Talai, who would probably make a good Charley, is largely wasted as the producer Josephson.

The women fare slightly better. Vivino brays and boozes her way through the play's opening scene where we witness what a wreck Mary has become. Sengbloh seems more at home as the mega-star Gussie who opens the second act than as the one-time secretary who clawed her way to stardom, and the sparks between her and Lazar are nonexistent. Although she enters the story slightly later, it's Bashor who does the production's finest work. As Beth the deeply wounded wife who sings "Not a Day Goes By" and her younger incarnation blasting her way through the political revue skit "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," Bashor positively kills it.

As Merrily is a musical about showbiz folks, Arden and his design team go in for the minimal, life-behind-the-curtain look. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey's stage is largely bare except for a series of dressing tables, ghost lights, and mirrors which get shuttled around the stage and aid in the concept of turning the clock backwards. Just in case we don't get the metaphor, there is also an open door, often with a light shining from it, that seems to be constantly beckoning Frank to pass through.

Yes, hope is eternally a good thing, particularly at the dawn of Donald Trump's America. Mine is that Merrily we Roll Along goes back into hibernation and that Stephen Sondheim has at least one brand new musical left in him.

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Merrily we Roll Along
Book by George Furth
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on the Original Play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Michael Arden
Cast: Whitney Bashor, Wayne Brady, Aaron Lazar, Saycon Sengbloh, Amir Talai, Dona Vivino, Eric B. Anthony, Sandy Bainum, Melody Butiu, Doran Butler, Max Chucker, Sarah Daniels, Kevin Patrick Doherty, Laura Dickinson, Rachael Ferrera, Jennifer Foster, Travis Leland, Lyle Colby Mackston, Brent Schindele, Maximus Brandon Verso
Scenic and Costume Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Design: Travis Hagenbuch
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Properties Supervisor: Jeffrey Maloney
Music Supervisor: Matt Gould
Musical Director: Adam Wachter
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Stage Manager: T.J. Kearney
Choreography: Eamon Foley
Songs: "Merrily we Roll Along," "That Frank," "Old Friends," "Like it Was," "Franklin Shepard, Inc." "Second Transition," "Growing Up," "Third Transition," "Not a Day Goes By," "Now You Know," "Act Two Opening," "It's a Hit," "Fourth Transition," "The Blob," "Good Thing Going," "Fifth Transition," "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," "Sixth Transition," "Opening Doors," "Seventh Transition," "Our Time." Plays through December 18, 2016 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 135 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, ,
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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