Merrily We Roll Along, book by George Furth, lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by John Simpkins. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jason Tam (c) and company; photo: Randy O'Rourke
Jason Tam, Lauren Marcus, A.J. Shively; photo:Randy O'Rourke
"I'm starting not to care. . ."
Few major musical shows by major songwriters have run for a shorter time on Broadway than Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." In this, a 16 performance initial history, it mirrored the Moss Hart/George. S. Kaufmann play of the same title on which it was based. It ran only 155 performances making it the shortest run of any of their plays. In both cases the principal problem was identical and there are almost fifty years between the two productions. Both plays start at the bitter end for their main characters and in a succession of scenes, running backward in time, both wind up with a scene of great hope and promise. The promised "happy ending" is achieved by bringing the audience to a true highpoint in the lives of the main characters. The only problem is that we have already witnessed the lowest points, the difficulties, the troubles and triumphs that will not be repeated. We are privy, by the high-hopes startup in the final scene, to the outcome of their choices and actions. Their "happy ending" is spoiled for us by the foreknowledge we've been granted in the play.
Play the show backwards, starting with their youth and ending with their middle age won't help because the end (actual beginning) is so bleak and despairing that we would exit the theater searching for a knife to fall upon. The Sondheim/Furth edition at least has some of the most wonderful musical writing in the history of the form. Written in 1981 (and later revised in 1985) this show contains three of Sondheim's best songs, song hits really, "Not a Day Goes By," "Old Friends," and "Good Thing Going." It contains one of his most delectable "show-biz" numbers, "It's a Hit." It also contains some of the most wonderful theatrical writing throughout the show, through-composed scenes and interlocking melodic structures that give us characters in character and people we almost seem to know already, even before they sing.
The three principal players are Jason Tam as Franklin Shepard, Lauren Marcus as Mary Flynn and A.J. Shively as Charles Kringas. Frank and Charlie are a song-writing team and Mary is a novelist. All three actors enliven their characters by playing them full-out right from the beginning (or the end) and never letting them loose. Marcus is particularly realistic in her work. She makes Mary Flynn the strongest character of the three, although Shively comes very close with Charlie. Tam, at the center of the action always, is brash, brazen, very human and very sweet. Franklin, as he is played here, always wants to do the right thing but his desires sway him to a darker place from time to time and his losses are not even someone else's gains.
Marcus sings very well, with much emotion and depth, but so does Emma Davis as Frank's wife, Beth. We first hear her inner voice and outer one, in an Act One reprise of a song she "introduces" in the second act, but this first act rehash of "Not a Day Goes By" is dark and maudlin and painful. It is rather confusing to try and explain how this show works, and oddly enough it does work. Often there are pre-echoes of songs in the first act of themes that won't emerge full-blown until later in the show. It is tricky and makes for potential misunderstandings and disasters.
Also wonderful in the cast are David Fanning as Joe Josephson, a producer and Sarah Cline as Gussie Carnegie, Joe's star and his wife. Both do excellent work in their roles, Cline particularly in her many singing moments. The rest of the cast of seventeen players are all doing great work here, especially Evan Fine as Frank, Jr.
Director John Simpkins has a full plate with this show. So much of the gravy is buried beneath the meat that it takes a brave and clever person to squeeze it out, but Simpkins has done it. Having the eleven piece band on stage with the actors working in front of and around the musicians works to the advantage of this show.So do the costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey which take us back in time from 1976 to 1957. Clifton Taylor's lighting lifts the show out of the ordinary and Brian Prather provides a highly workable set for this different sort of a play.
This musical is unique. Like it or not (a few people drove away during the intermission) it is certainly unlike anything you are likely to see again anywhere and you only have a few days left in which to see it for the entire run lasts just one week.
Merrily We Roll Alongplays through July 19 at the Triarts Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-364-SHOW or go on line at www.SharonPlayhouse.org.