Regional Reviews: Boston
Merrily We Roll Along
Merrily's back story is anything but merry, as it played only sixteen performances in its debut, especially surprising as it was the followup to Sondheim's success with Sweeney Todd. The score rolls along with the likes of the title song, "Old Friends," "Not a Day Goes By," and "Our Time," all of which deepen our understanding of the characters and their relationships, while advancing the story. Furth's book, on the other hand, has always been problematic, unable to find a way to clearly show how the reverse passage of time impacts each life. Without a good road map, audiences just didn't get it. By most accounts, Friedman's version seems to have overcome the obstacles and potholes.
Enough about the history of the show (you can read all about it in Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat"), let's talk about the present, and by that I mean the gift from the Huntington Theatre Company. Merrily takes place over the course of nearly twenty years, from 1976 to 1957, and Soutra Gilmour (scenic and costume design) evokes those decades with a fabulous array. Bits and pieces of the dialogue put a time stamp on a scene, such as a newscaster announcing that the passage of Roe v. Wade has finally settled the abortion issue. The year in each scene is also musically introduced by the company singing out "1973" or "1964," for example, as they simultaneously turn back the virtual clock and reset the stage.
The principals are Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers), Charles Kringas (Damian Humbley), and Mary Flynn (Eden Espinosa), three old friends whose lives go off in separate directions, derailing the close camaraderie they established as fresh, young dreamers. Umbers and Humbley journeyed across the pond from the London production and are both terrific. They have no trouble conveying the brotherly relationship between the composer and lyricist team. Espinosa brings her Broadway chops to the role of Mary, playing her strengths and weaknesses with distinction, while also seamlessly becoming part of the trio. At the beginning of the show, all three characters are pretty cynical and world weary, but the actors are able to gradually shed their overstuffed baggage as they revert to their younger, anything-is-possible selves at the conclusion.
With the exception of a couple of ensemble members, the balance of the company is homegrown, and it's great to see many familiar faces stepping up to a bigger stage. A veteran of two prior Sondheim shows at Huntington, Aimee Doherty (Gussie Carnegie) shines both literally and figuratively as Franklin's second wife, the star of his Broadway hit, when she sings its finale in a shimmering, form-fitting gown. Her character goes through a lot of changes and Doherty turns the dial up or down as called for, but she is especially masterful when oozing false charm or practicing not-so-subtle seduction. As Gussie's predecessor in the marital bed, Jennifer Ellis (Beth) makes the most of a less-developed character. Beth is more an appendage of Frank, but she performs in an early revue with him and Charley ("Bobby and Jackie and Jack"). However, when we meet her, they are divorcing and she has, arguably, one of the best songs in the show, "Not a Day Goes By"; from the first lyric, it will shred your heartstrings. (I challenge you not to tear up.) The emotion Ellis wrings from it is in stark contrast to a later rendition in duet with Umbers, when the song is filled with promise and innocence.
Christopher Chew (Joe Josephson) disappears into his blustery character, a Broadway producer who is Gussie's first husband, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent channels his inner Ted Baxter as the newscaster, and also appears in the ensemble. Robert Saoud and Amy Barker sit in as Beth's conservative parents, Patrick Varner plays Frank's sycophantic buddy who invented (?) the answering machine and is outrageous as one of the dancers in "The Blob," and Jessica Kundla (Meg Kincaid) is the starlet waiting to be Frank's third wife. The role of Frank Junior is shared by Cameron Levesque and Brendan O'Brien, two young men with an impressive range of regional credits between them. Rounding out the talented ensemble are Caleb Damschroder, Bransen Gates, Rebecca Gibel, Morgan Kirner, Pablo Torres, Craig Waletzko, and Ceit M. Zweil.
From the opening notes of the overture, music director Matthew Stern's nine-piece orchestra starts off like gangbusters and provides vivid accompaniment throughout. Choreographer Tim Jackson puts the dancers through the right paces in every decade, and provides some tongue-in-cheek amusement when the ensemble moves across the stage Fosse-style as a unit in "The Blob." Lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg and sound design by John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy effectively complement the production.
The Huntington Theatre Company has made a long-term commitment to stage all fifteen musicals for which Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Merrily We Roll Along is the third in the series and my personal favorite, so far. The composer himself said of the London production, "This production of Merrily We Roll Along is not only the best I've seen, but one of those rare instances where casting, direction, and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts." I'll leave you with that.
Merrily We Roll Along, performances through October 15, 2017, at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth, Based on the original play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince, Directed by Maria Friedman; Choreographer, Tim Jackson; Music Director, Matthew Stern; Scenic & Costume Design, Soutra Gilmour; Lighting Design, Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design, John Shivers & Kevin Kennedy; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle
Cast (in alphabetical order): Amy Barker, Christopher Chew, Caleb Damschroder, Aimee Doherty, Jennifer Ellis, Eden Espinosa, Bransen Gates, Rebecca Gibel, Damian Humbley, Morgan Kirner, Jessica Kindle, Cameron Levesque, Carla Martinez, Brendan O'Brien, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Robert Saoud, Pablo Torres, Mark Umbers, Patrick Varner, Craig Waletzko, Ceit M. Zweil