A CurtainUp Review
Merrily We Roll Along
By Brad Bradley
Merrily We Roll Along, a shocking 1981 Broadway failure that closed only two weeks after an extended preview period involving heavy changes, has been retooled even more over time by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and especially by librettist George Furth and presented in subsequent incarnations with varying degrees of success.
This is one of Sondheim’s most accessible yet infrequently heard scores, with several quite wonderful songs included. Fortunately, in spite of the show’s initial failure, the notable score has been preserved by three professional cast recordings: the fine Broadway original and two very respectable others made more than a decade later, one of a production in England, the other from a small Off-Broadway mounting.
Another staged interpretation is now locally available, showcasing mostly recent and continuing students of New York University. This production is bare-bones in the sets and costumes, although considering the intimacy of the 99-seat venue, quite generous in its above-the-stage orchestra of seven players. The appropriately youthful cast also is ample, with only a minimum of doubling required by members of the ensemble.
Part of the challenge and dramatic interest of Merrily is that, like its antecedent Kaufman and Hart play, the action is told in reverse, each scene taking place at a time earlier than the one just seen. This time-in-reverse device is infrequently used in the theater, and considering the minimum of real story-telling time available in a musical, even more of a challenge to make work within that complex genre. Happily, Sondheim’s choral lyrics usually help clarify the time changes, although the first scenes seen could use some time-sharpening device -- actually, a symbolic clock of years sits on stage throughout the performance, but oddly is never incorporated into the action.
The inverted story describes nearly two decades in the lives of three people who became fast friends in their youth and remained close until other alliances produced conflicts impacting both friendship and marriage. All three members of the central trio are deftly played: Charles Bonnin is Frank, a composer who moves from Broadway to Hollywood; Joshua William Gelb is Charley, his close friend and lyricist; and Anna Kirkland is Mary, their devoted confidante and soon a successful writer. The three are excellent in the dramatic aspects of their roles, and have strong musical moments as well. Bonnin most effectively conveys the maturity required in the early scenes, Gelb is especially gifted at the comic requirements, and Kirkland is utterly convincing as her successful yet troubled character.
Some other principals have yet to acquire sufficient professional polish, but the company as a whole is appealing and mostly engaging. And there are two standouts in the ensemble who have enough stage presence and musical talent for an entire chorus. They are Angela Donovan, a stylish redhead I couldn’t take my eyes from (she has the assurance, talent, and visual appeal that bring to mind the best qualities of both Bebe Neuwirth and Bernadette Peters) and Holden Berryman, a sparkling hunk of a guy with an ever-inviting smile who could become a winning variation on the late great Gregory Hines.
Many of the musical numbers work beautifully, notably "Old Friends" by the central trio and "Good Thing Going," a superbly dynamic solo sung by Charley as his professional collaboration with Frank starts to click. Also effective are "Opening Doors," sung by a sextet including the original trio and "Not a Day Goes By," ” a plaintive song with echoes of the earlier and considerably better-known Sondheim show Follies, especially in Mary’s section. Theexuberant final song, "Our Time," is powerfully delivered in all its three variations -- a solo by Frank, a duet with Frank and Charley, and finally as a rousing finale that includes Mary and the entire ensemble. Some other solo vocals are not as effective, and a balance between orchestra and singers in the new performing location had yet to be achieved at the performance attended. While hearing stage music in New York without microphones is refreshing, unfortunately the singers too often are drowned out by the musicians. Also the diction of some solo voices is erratic to the point that lyrics are lost.
The scenic support of flexible modular pieces is ideal for the intimate and technologically limited space and no doubt limited budget. While director Steve Velardi’s pacing of the scenes is brisk, fluidity is lost in not providing bridge music between scenes. The set changes necessarily are made in front of the audience by the cast, but such changes often leave a musical number followed by absolute silence, causing the audience to feel temporarily stranded. But this is a relatively easy matter to fix in a production that is marked by three terrific performances at the center, high energy by the cast, genuine engagement with the characters, and mostly sharp production numbers as delivered by Tony Montenieri’s efficient and eye-catching choreography.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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