BWW Reviews: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG a Triumphant Production of Seldom-Produced Sondheim
Over the course of his fifty year career, Stephen Sondheim has written shows of a predominantly darker hue. He's tackled stories about showgirls who are past their prime, a barber turned serial killer, a giant who destroys a fairy tale kingdom, presidential assassins, and an entire country selling out to the western world. Still, his unassuming 1981 musical about the slow demise of a three-pronged friendship may be the saddest thing he's ever written. If that sounds like an indication that you should skip Merrily We Roll Along, keep in mind that no one does sad like Sondheim. In other words, roll along to St. Edwards University, see this show, and enjoy the emotional sucker punch.
It's doubtful that anyone who saw the original 1981 production of Merrily We Roll Along would have guessed that the show would eventually find success in subsequent productions. The Broadway production notoriously flopped. Audiences and critics found the story, which spans two decades and is told in reverse, hard to follow. The production's solution: clothe the cast in sweaters displaying their character's names. Just imagine if Les Miserables began with an actor running on stage with "Jean Valjean" printed across his chest. The problematic show closed just two weeks after opening night (meaning the St. Edwards production will run the same amount of time). Most ironic, though, is the fact that the musical about the end of the relationship between two friends and collaborators ended (at least for a while) the relationship between two friends and collaborators. Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince wouldn't collaborate again for nearly 20 years.
So why does the show work now? For one, Sondheim's made many revisions to the work over the year. The version now playing at St. Edwards features several revisions first seen in the 1994 Off-Broadway revival of the show. George Furth's book has been tightened, a few songs have been added to give the show more clarity, and others, like the book-ending "Hills of Tommorrow," have been cut.
But even with the revisions, the show can be a bit confusing. Just try listening to any of the show's post 1994 cast albums. They're not exactly easy to follow. It really falls to director Ev Lunning, Jr. to keep the show on course, and his production flows with ease. Lunning has found the structure hidden within this unwieldy show. Costume designer Susan Branch Towne also helps the audience follow the story. She's wisely dispensed with the name-printed sweaters and instead provides countless period-specific outfits. All of the costumes are immaculately constructed and immediately clue the audience into where and when we are in the story.
Of course, the show challenges more than just the director and costume designer. There's no such thing as an easy Sondheim score, and Merrily We Roll Along is one of his most complex. But despite the challenges posed by the musical, this cast of (mostly) college students is more than capable of handling Sondheim's tricky rhythms and harmonies. They sound like a Broadway caliber cast, and they exude the same level of professionalism. It's worth stating that the Original Broadway Cast was comprised of teens and twenty-somethings. Many reviews of the original production criticized the young cast for not being able to handle the vocal demands and emotional complexity of the score. Though this production features a similarly youthful cast, such criticisms can't be levied against them.
There's not a weak link to be found among the performers. Guest artist Jarret Mallon may not have tons of stage time as a once-successful Broadway producer, but he's tough to ignore. Each of his brief moments in the first act, both of which find him at rock bottom, has an emotional impact, and that impact expands once we see the prosperous version of his character later in the show.
As Frank Shepard, guest artist Scott Shipman gives a tour-de-force performance. Like a lot of Sondheim male leads (Bobby from Company, I'm looking at you), we're told that Frank is the kind of guy who everyone wants to know, and yet there's not much in the text that makes him so magnetic. Shipman gives older Frank an air of charisma and charm that's missing from the text but makes it clear that his happiness is all superficial. Frank knows exactly how he's sold out and what he's given up to become a successful composer. To say that the man regrets many of his choices would be an understatement. Watching Shipman regress from the anti-hero into his naive, optimistic former self is heartbreaking.
Fellow guest artist Tyler Jones gives an equally strong performance as Frank's best friend and writing partner, Charley Kringas. Unlike Frank, Charley finds it difficult to compromise his morals or integrity in favor of success, but Sondheim and Furth never allow the character to be a goodie-goodie protagonist. Charley has his flaws, too. His witty comebacks easily transform to angry barbs. Jones has a gift for allowing his character's patience and good natured spirit to slowly spoil, something he brilliantly does in his introductory song, "Franklin Shepard, Inc."
As strong as the male guest artists are, the female students run away with the show. As Beth, Frank's first wife, Rachel Dunk proves to be a perfect ingénue. In the second act, she's a bubbly bundle of exuberant energy, but the true highlight of her performance comes in the first act when she sings one of Merrily's most notable songs, "Not a Day Goes By." It's a song that combines love, loss, happiness, and pain as only Sondheim can do, and Dunk's performance of it is one of the best I've ever seen or heard.
Anna Vanston is just as memorable as Gussie, a glamorous Broadway star and Frank's second wife. Gussie is a man-eater who finds pleasure in putting on her stilettos before she tramples others on her way to the top. Vanston gives Gussie a perfect mix of glamor, sass, and camp, and her devilish grin is pure evil.
As Mary Flynn-the final member of the show's dynamic trio of Frank, Charley, and Mary-Brittany Allyson spends most of her time sharing the stage with Shipman and Jones. Such a task might be intimidating to other collegiate actresses, but Allyson more than holds her own with the two professionals. She also has to contend with one of the most complex of Sondheim's leading ladies. When we meet Mary, she's an out of control alcoholic. Though armed with many a hysterical quip, she's a bit of a nuisance. However, younger Mary is a devoted, caring, innocent friend. Allyson brings life to both sides of the character and makes it easy to understand how and why Mary devolves into a bitter and broken alcoholic. Trying to keep the friendship between Frank and Charley alive would drive anyone to drink, and Mary's unrequited love for Frank only adds fuel to the fire.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG plays the Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edwards University at 3001 South Congress Ave, Austin 78704 now thru April 13th. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20-$25. For tickets and information, please visit http://think.stedwards.edu/theatre/