Merrily We Roll Along
Also see Susan's review of Ah! Wilderness
Director Eric Schaeffer has received a lot of justifiable praise over the years for his facility with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. Unfortunately, his current production of Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim's problematic musical from 1981 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, is uninvolving and never rises to its full potential.
The original Broadway run of Merrily We Roll Along lasted only 16 performances, and subsequent productions have incorporated a reworked book (by the original librettist, George Furth) and new songs. The show can succeed in its current version, as it did in a brilliant 2002 production during the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration. The Signature production, in contrast, is remote and stylized, more about appearances than emotions.
Merrily is known among Sondheim fans for its backward progression in time – a gimmick it shares with its source, a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The action begins in the late 1970s, when the characters are facing the disillusionment of early middle age, then follows them back 25 years to their days of fresh-faced idealism. The action isn't hard to follow, but this production is short on empathy for the people involved.
Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore) is a gifted composer who has sold out his gift, first to write commercially successful fluff instead of incisive social commentary, then to give up Broadway altogether and become a Hollywood producer. Charley Kringas (Erik Liberman), Frank's longtime friend and eventual enemy, goes from writing lyrics to a successful solo playwriting career. The third musketeer, writer Mary Flynn (Tracy Lynn Olivera), becomes a bitter alcoholic because she can't accept compromise either in herself or in anyone she loves.
In many productions, Frank is a cipher at the center of a gallery of well-etched characters, but not here. Gartshore capably depicts the character's nerve, his drive, the ambition that ultimately alienates those around him. Neither Liberman nor Olivera is able to match his strength; they seem depressingly normal.
Karma Camp's choreography is another puzzle. The members of the ensemble play small roles but mostly perform as a group ("the blob," as one song describes them), and Camp has given them a lot of waving arms and not much purpose.
Scenic designer James Kronzer has designed a simple, elegant set consisting of a circular white stage floor (echoing a clock face?), a sweeping white staircase, a tall white door, and a grand piano, and it all looks beautiful under Chris Lee's washes of light. Robert Perdziola's costumes, however, are garish and off-putting: Frank spends the first act in an absurd black-and-white herringbone checked suit, alongside Charlie's unflattering green-and-black plaid sport jacket, and childish pale pink for Beth (Bayla Whitten), Frank's first wife. In contrast, Gussie Carnegie (Tory Ross), the Broadway star who knows what she wants, gets flattering, graceful costumes in sequined pale green.