When Merrily We Roll Along debuted on Broadway in 1981, it boasted a talented cast of very young performers. Even though the show included Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince in its creative team, it was a fast flop. Almost twenty-five years later, the musical is being presented as a part of the Mainstage Series of the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) and again includes a young cast. Though this group of performers is well prepared, some of the flaws of the piece keep the production from being the unanimous crowd-pleaser that CCM audiences expect.
Merrily We Roll Along is a challenging and difficult musical to execute. The show follows the often-tumultuous relationship of three friends over a span of more than twenty years. Composer Franklin, writer Mary and lyricist/playwright Charlie start their careers as hopeful dreamers, but end up as defeated and disenchanted sellouts in their forties, and isolated from each other. Not only does the piece address some depressing issues, but the show is also hampered by the fact that it tells its story backwards chronologically. The action opens in 1976 with Franklin, who has sold out on his talent, his morals and his friends. Each subsequent scene moves backwards from there, until the last scene opens in 1957 with the three friends having no doubts that they will conquer the world together. Though this flow allows for an upbeat positive ending, it is tempered by the fact that we know the harsh truth of how the characters turn out.
The book for Merrily We Roll Along is by George Furth, based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. While there is well-written and sufficient bite, humor and social commentary throughout, the structure and subject matter make it a difficult story for audiences to embrace. The backward storytelling is confusing to many theatergoers. Also, it isn't until act two that any of the main characters are at all likable. It can seem like two musicals: the first act being a dark, bittersweet tale of abandoned dreams, and the second half one of fun times, loving relationships, and hope. A few years after the show closed on Broadway, it was reworked and made somewhat more palatable. However, most of the primary issues with the show remain.
One thing that is not a problem with Merrily We Roll Along is its score by Stephen Sondheim. The songs are rich in melody, with many people feeling that this is his most "accessible" score. Even the wonderful brassy overture that starts the show is evidence that this isn't a "typical" Sondheim score. The lyrics are deftly sophisticated and witty, and there is brilliant use of musical themes. The tunes may be simpler in structure than most Sondheim songs, but their uses are as complex as ever. A song such as "Good Thing Going" is used in various ways and formats to demonstrate and comment on the state of the relationships of the three friends. The catchy title tune is used to transition between scenes (and time periods). The plaintive "Not A Day Goes By" is sung twice, once by a betrayed wife on the brink of divorce, and once by the same bride and her husband-to-be on their wedding day, but with counterpoint by another woman clinging to an unexpressed love for the groom. The wonderful "Our Time" is a youthful anthem of hope that these young adults feel as they see the possibilities of the future expressed through the launching of Sputnik.
For the CCM production, Director Nick Mangano's choices are hit and miss. He stages some songs/scenes (such as "The Blob", "Opening Doors", and "Old Friends") with great care and to wonderful effect, and the humor of the piece really shines through. However, Mr. Mangano is unable to overcome act one's problems, and the result is a sometimes heavy-handed approach. The opening scenes drag and seem a bit under-rehearsed. Mangano also makes the unusual choice to include the song "The Hills of Tomorrow," which was cut when script revisions were made in the mid-1980s, to bookend the show. We first hear it prior to the overture, and then again at the end, after "Our Time." It is staged, as in the original, as a commencement song Franklin and Charlie wrote. Sondheim fans will love seeing it included at the beginning, but the final appearance takes away from the perfect show ending that "Our Time" provides. The choreography by Patti James is solid throughout and highlighted in "Old Friends" and "Act Two Opening." Bryan Perri leads a talented 16-piece orchestra, but more errors from the pit were heard than usual at the performance reviewed.
Merrily We Roll Along requires actors who can sing, rather than the other way around. Playing characters who get younger by twenty years throughout the show and change significantly isn't an easy thing to do. As Franklin, Michael Lowe sings well and transitions smoothly from disillusioned loner to sympathetic dreamer. Adam Wagner is a steady presence. He knocks the song "Franklin Shepard, Inc" out of the ballpark and conveys the sarcasm and frustration of the character well. As Mary, Julie Kotarides excels as the youthful lovelorn optimist and in all of the comedic parts, but needs more edge at the beginning of the show as the drunk and fed up friend of Frank. Jacqui Polk is very endearing as Beth, and Wesley Zurick does fine as Frank Jr. As Gussie, Val Williams is appropriately brassy and bitchy, and belts with ease. Jonathan Parks-Ramage sings very well, but portrays Joe Josephson as too much of a caricature. The rest of the cast does well while serving as a sort of Greek Chorus commenting on and helping along the action.
Mark Halpin's set is a fairly simple and serviceable one featuring sliding panels with doors that are put to good use. Projections are used to define setting, which helps clarify the passing of time. The costumes by Mark D. Sorensen are period appropriate and interesting. The lighting by Sean M. Savoie is adequate, but misses several opportunities to enhance the overall effect.
Merrily We Roll Along is a musical that requires patience and attention due to its unique structure and frank subject matter. CCM's production is solid, but not one that overcomes the show's liabilities. Merrily We Roll Along continues through March 6, 2005. Contact the box office at (513) 556-4183 for additional information.