Merrily We Roll Along: Chance Theater, 3/6/10

10 03 2010

As I shared with my musical theater history students in a Sondheim lecture a few weeks ago, Merrily We Roll Along was one of Sondheim’s greatest Broadway flops, lasting only 16 performances after it opened in 1981.  The idea behind the show is brilliant: in a typical, cynical Sondheimian fashion, the plot moves backwards in time to reveal how the American dream has progressively crushed the soul of the “successful” composer-turned-filmmaker Franklin Shepard.  Actually staging this musical, though, is a different beast.  I was thrilled to hear that the Chance Theater would be taking on this challenging piece, which I had never seen onstage before.

Let’s begin with the inherent, almost insurmountable, challenges of Merrily.  The primary difficulty that lingers in the Chance Theater’s production is the absurd range of ages the three central actors must portray over the course of the evening.  Franklin Shepard (Jeremy Fillinger) and his faithful friends Charley Kringass (the outstanding Ryland Dodge) and Mary Flynn (the endearing Amie Bjorklund) grow almost 20 years younger over the course of the musical, from disillusioned adults in 1976 to idealistic youth in 1957.  It’s hard enough to make such a transition forwards: just imagine doing it backwards.  While I enjoyed the sleek black-and-white palette that echoed John Doyle’s 2006 revival of Company, I felt that costume changes (perhaps from more mature business wear to younger, more casual dress) could have aided this age transition, alongside a more pronounced change in physicality from the actors.

With a book by George Furth of Company fame, this show also has the inherent “Bobby” problem: a central character who is somewhat of a cipher.  In the end, we are more emotionally invested in Charley, Mary, and Franklin’s (ex)wife Beth than in Franklin himself. Jeremy Fillinger provides a serviceable Franklin Shepard Inc., but falls flat (quite literally on some notes …) in comparison to his vibrant companions.  I was astounded at the charisma, nuance, and depth Raul Esparza brought to the role of Bobby in John Doyle’s Company and would love to someday see his take on Franklin.  (Esparza played Charley at the Kennedy Center in 2002.)

There are other challenges that this production of Merrily We Roll Along very successfully tackles, however – ultimately creating an invigorating theatrical experience for the Sondheim fan. For instance, how to ensure that the audience understands the backwards motion of the plot?  Sondheim writes these transitions into the score (“How did you get to be here?  What was the moment?”), which director Oanh Nguyen appropriately stages as recurrent transitions: the actors encircle and confront Franklin in clockwise motion (and its reverse) at each step back in the story.  With a minimalist set, Christopher Scott Murillo’s simple projections of the cityscape and year quickly and effectively set each new scene.  (Have I mentioned how particularly hilarious it is to watch such an anti-LA musical in LA?  It almost adds a new cynical layer to Sondheim and Furth’s already-cynical work.)

Although Merrily We Roll Along may not be the greatest musical property, it is a fascinating composition for its connections to other Sondheim material – which this production effectively draws out.  On top of an interest in central isolated characters (Bobby, Frank, George Seurat, Sweeney Todd), Sondheim has quite the knack for trite social conversation; I am thinking particularly of Company and Sunday in the Park with George here.  The hyperstylized choreography of Kelly Todd adds another humorous layer to the forced laughter and cliched phrases that Frank and his Hollywood cronies toss about in Act I – a striking contrast to Act II, when those same words once held some humanity and meaning.  And how can you help but laugh when you hear the producer Joe demand that Franklin (i.e. Sondheim) write a more “hummable” melody – which then veers into “Some Enchanted Evening”?

Ending with the cynical optimism of “Our Time,” Merrily We Roll Along is perhaps a hard sell for the general public, but an absolute pleasure for Sondheim fanatics – and the Chance Theater offers a rewarding production.  Plus, who says you can’t reappropriate “Our Time” to embody some actual optimism about the future of musical theater?  I’m living in that idealistic, optimistic time of my life right now. Having attended the show with two talented theater friends, I left Merrily inspired to write.  “It’s our time, breathe it in: worlds to change and worlds to win. Our turn, we’re what’s new.  Me and you, pal, me and you!”

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16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] We Roll Along (Chance Theatre) – Review The production wasn’t perfect, but I was so glad to see one of my favorite Sondheim scores […]

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