TheatreWorks Productions of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along is Brilliant
On November 19, 1981, just three days into the run of the original production (the negative Times review had just come out), I went to the Alvin Theatre to see Sondheim's latest work. The theatre was half full and the audience gave the production only tepid applause at the end. I thought the book was cumbersome and disjointed, and at that time the score was not at the level of a Sondheim classic. The original production had nothing but trouble during its 52 previews and once the New York papers came out with negative reviews, it closed after only 16 performances. The main problem was that the musical's beginning was in 1976 and it moved backwards to 1957. That first production had some talented young performers who enjoyed later success: Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway, Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Giancarlo Esposito.
Since that time I have watched this challenging musical grow into one of Sondheim's greatest works. I saw the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse production with Marin Mazzie and John Rubenstein and found it much better. In the 1992 Haymarket Production in Leicester, England, the show was finally coming together and it was excellent. I saw an unusual production by a community theatre company in northern England who produced the musical in reverse order, starting with 1957 and going to 1976. The best I had seen until now was the York Theatre production with Malcolm Gets and Michele Pawk in 1994. Donmar Warehouse in London did a fourth revision in 2000 which won Olivier Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Actress. In 2002 the Kennedy Center did a production with Emily Skinner and Raul Esparza which received positive reviews. Another production of the musical is currently running at the Derby Playhouse in England.
Merrily We Roll Along goes against the grain by starting at the end of the story of the trials and tribulations of three young persons trying to make it big in the world of musical theatre. It's a persuasive Broadway fable about friendship, compromise and the high price of success. Merrily is the story of well-heeled, jaded composer Franklin Shepard (Damon Kirsche) and his two estranged friends, writer Charley Kringas (Robert Brewer) and their buddy Mary Flynn (Molly Bell), through each milestone of their personal and professional lives. It about the importance of staying true to one's ideals.
The opening scene at a Bel Air cocktail party in 1976 tells it all: the now unhappy film producer, Franklin Shepard, and his very shallow cronies celebrate the success of their latest mediocre picture. The musical shows us how they got here by going back in time scene by scene.
Sondheim has written some of his most brilliant melodies and lyrics for this outstanding score. Songs such as "Old Friends," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Not a Day Goes By," "Our Time" and "Good Thing Going" are examples of the master's great contributions to musical theatre.
Robert Kelley is helming a cast that is not only superb in the vocal department but in acting and movement as well. Alex Perez' choreography is beautifully timed as each person moves perfectly across the stage. The scenes flash by on the wonderful set by Joe Ragey. This is a production comparable to a Broadway or Off-Broadway show. William Liberatore leads a 10-piece orchestra located behind the set.
Damon Kirsche (Broadway Encores! Strike Up the Band, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, On a Clear Day ... and Scarlet Pimpernel at Musical Theatre of Wichita, On the 20th Century, She Loves Me at LA's Reprise!) is outstanding as Franklin Shepard. He instills a feasible ambivalence in the role. The character is always making decisions that are not in his best interest and he is easily swayed by those around him. He does not take Shakespeare's warning "to thine own self be true."
Robert Brewer (Into the Woods, Urinetown and Bat Boy in Dallas) captures the essence of anxiety-ridden Charley and is terrific as he zooms through the most moral song of praise, "Franklin Shepard, Inc." One of the great pleasures is Riette Burdick (national tour of Crazy for You and AMT productions Victor/Victoria and A Chorus Line) portraying Gussie Carnegie as she riotously demolishes her way through the personality of a self-absorbed Broadway star.
Molly Bell (A Little Princess, Memphis at TheatreWorks) is titillating as Mary Flynn, the acid-tongued Dorothy Parker of the group. Lianne Marie Dobbs (A Little Princess, My Antonia, A Little Night Music, Ragtime) is mesmerizing as Shepard's first wife Beth. She belts out the score's most emotionally compelling song, "Not a Day Goes By."
Kirsche and Brewer are appealing in cabaret turns toward the end of the production with "Good Thing Going" and the satirical "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," as they are joined by Ms. Dobbs. The song at the end, "Our Time," sung by Kirsche, Brewer and Bell joined by the chorus, converses the enthusiasm of youth as they are ready to conquer the theatre world.
Merrily We Roll Along boasts an infectiously vivacious cast of supporting singer/actors, including Julian Hornik, Diana Torres Koss, Noel Anthony, Christopher Maikish, Carrie Madsen, Stephan Smith Collins and Meghann May in various roles. When they are all singing one of the best scores of modern-day musicals, the show comes across as electrifying.
Merrily We Roll Along plays at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street at Mercy, San Francisco through April 29th. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
TheatreWorks' next production will be Bernard Pomerance's Tony Award winning drama The Elephant Man opening on June 20th and running through July 15th.