Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Merrily We Roll Along follows the often tumultuous relationship of three friends over a span of almost 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 also faces the challenge of telling 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 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 historical context throughout, the structure and subject matter make it a difficult story for audiences to embrace. The backward storytelling can be confusing to many theatergoers. Also, it isn't until more than halfway through the piece that any of the main characters are very likable, and the audience is introduced to each one at their worst. It can seem like two musicals: the first section being a dark, bittersweet tale of abandoned dreams, and the second half one of fun times, loving relationships, and hope. The show was reworked after it closed on Broadway in 1981 and made somewhat more palatable, but the primary issues with the script remain.
One thing that is not a problem with Merrily We Roll Along is its score. The songs are rich in melody, with many people feeling that this is Sondheim's most "accessible" 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.
Director John Doyle is known for his use of the actors as his onstage orchestra, and this technique is used again here. Cincinnati audiences previously saw Mr. Doyle productions of Sweeney Todd and Company in this format, but Merrily We Roll Along offers a bigger challenge. With the backward storytelling device of the book already an obstacle to clear understanding of the plot, the minimization of blocking and inhibited acting (both due to the actors also having to play instruments) further erode clarity for the audience. Also, this is a smaller and shorter Merrily than those familiar with the show are accustomed. Several chunks of dialogue and entire characters have been excised (as compared to the licensed script), the songs have no musical buttons (and thus no applause from the audience until the very end), and the show comes in at an intermission-less one hour and forty-five minutes. Worst of all for fans of the musical, the glorious overture (probably the last great one heard on Broadway) is entirely absent. The director's concept of the show being told to Frank Jr. (Ben Diskant), presumably as a cautionary tale, is interesting, but one not fully developed or focused.
These shortcomings are tempered by some very positive contributions by Mr. Doyle, however. For those who do cherish the show, either due to its cult flop status or love of Sondheim, this is a major re-envisioning of the piece that will enhance certain aspects of the showfocusing more on the score and script. There are also some wonderful stage pictures presented with the cast, including a striking formation at the end of "That Frank" where all of the characters that Frank had pushed out of his life previously (story wise) are standing on boxes, separated from everyone else. The problem is that only those of us knowing the show will catch that fact based on our knowledge of what happens later in the piece. Still, it's obvious that Mr. Doyle has taken great care to enhance the emotional aspects, finding new depth in the interrelationships of the characters, and the show is stylistically intriguing and visually beautiful. Musical Supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell somehow manages to create full instrumental support for the singers with fewer musicians than normal and playing her new, apt orchestrations.
The cast of Merrily consists of three great Broadway pros in the lead roles, plus an ensemble of multi-talented performers, many of whom have been in previous Doyle actors-as-musician shows. As Franklin Shepard, Malcolm Gets (Amour, A New Brain) sings wonderfully (especially in "Growing Up"), serves as one of the primary pianists, and demonstrates a strong character arc. Mr. Gets is a solid foundation for the show in a role he played in a previous Off-Broadway production a number of years ago. Daniel Jenkins (Big, Big River) likewise is a superb vocalist and portrays Charley as more of an equal to Frank. His take on "Franklin Shepard, Inc" is a darker, more passionate one based on anger rather than the more humorous, frenetic version often seen. Becky Ann Baker (Mary) doesn't supply great singing, but her acting and perfectly delivered comedic takes are enormous assets to the production. As great as these three actors are in the show, it has to be pointed out that, with the three being in their late 40s or 50s, they've been cast much older than the 2040 age range of the characters, and this is obvious at times. In supporting roles, Jane Pfitsch (a sympathetic Beth), Leenya Rideout (a manipulative Gussie), and Bruce Sabath (short-sighted producer Joe Josephson) also turn in first-rate performances, as does the entire cast. The fact that many of them play multiple instruments in addition to worthwhile singing and acting is praiseworthy, and a pleasure to watch.
The design elements for this production of Merrily We Roll Along are very cohesive and stunningly rendered. Set Designer Scott Pask uses a sheet music theme, with a huge back wall of "falling" sheets, stacks and boxes of sheet music littering the stage, and a floor which likewise hints at being sheet music underneath glass. Hanging paper globes and projections to show the backward passage of time complete the design, and everything is in shades of blue or white. Each performer wears a single period-specific costume, splendidly designed by Ann Hould-Ward, also in shades of blue. As visually stunning as the scenic and costume designs are, they don't help much in in clarifying the time period transitions, as the unit set and wardrobe never changes, and the set and props are more representational than literal. The lighting by Jane Cox is appropriate and professional, and Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier uses an echo effect well at various times.
Merrily We Roll Along may never be a hit, due to its complex backward storytelling format and its challenges in presenting likeable characters. But the Sondheim score is one to adore. The production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park provides a completely different approach to the material, but while the actors-as-orchestra approach is an intriguing one to see performed, especially by this talented cast, it doesn't solve (and maybe adds to) the piece's flaws. The show continues at Cincinnati Playhouse through March 31, 2012. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.
-- Scott Cain