BWW Reviews: Weathervane's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG dissects the death of friendships
In his review of the debut of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in 1981, New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote, "As we all should have probably learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals."
Having seen shows like ASSASSINS, INTO THE WOODS, and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, fans of Sondheim's work have come to expect to fall in love with the American composer and lyricist's characters, only to watch those characters self-destruct, disappoint or die somewhere in the second act.
The Weathervane Playhouse's production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is a refreshing break from Sondheim's formula in one respect. The two-and-a-half hour, two-act production runs backward in time. It opens with the collapse of the friendship among Frank Shepherd (Jack Baylis), Charley Kringas (Brian Lundy) and Mary Flynn (Kelsey McCollaum) and then transverses its way backward to show the audience how each of the characters' decisions led to the estrangement. The show runs July 19-29th at the Weathervane Playhouse (100 Price Road in Newark).
All three characters achieve certain levels of success, Shepherd as a song writer and film producer, Kringas as a lyricist and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Flynn as a novelist and theatre critic. As the show progresses, the audience watches each of them sacrifice marriages, friendships, relationships and sobriety to reach that level of achievement.
Director D.J. Salisbury and scenic designer Jeremy Hollis decided to keep the set for the Weathervane production simple with fragments of large picture frames suspended across the stage. This seems to symbolize each scene was a moment in time.
The simple stage design allows the audience to focus on the performance of the actors. Baylis, Lundy and McCollaum capture their characters' transformation. McCollaum reverse transforms from being a bitter, acid-tongued alcoholic to a wide-eyed, love-struck best friend.
Lundy brings an unpretentious evolution to Kringas, whose break down on a television interview leads to the dissolution of his partnership with Shepard. After finding out his friend has inked a multiple picture deal with a studio, thereby delaying a musical the two have been working on for years, Kringas is asked how the two compose a musical. At first, Kringas comically describes how it worked originally where Shepard would play something on a piano and he would type in the lyrics. Then, slowly like a tea kettle that has been left on a stove too long, Kringas boils over into an all-out assault on Shepard.
Baylis brings a genuine earnestness to Shepard. At the opening of the play, Shepard finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of false Hollywood friends singing his praises while a loneliness seems to consume him and the breakup of his second marriage looms on the horizon.
The recurring character of the destruction of the three is Gussie Carnegie, played by Kaitlin Descutner. Carnegie poisons the relationship between Kringas and Shepard by introducing Shepard as the new star of Broadway and Kringas as "some guy I don't remember." It's Carnegie who pours Flynn her first drink on the path to be an alcoholic. Finally, it's Carnegie who seduces Shepard and brings about his first divorce.
For any Sondheim musical to work, a production needs a strong cast to produce a cacophony of conversations on stage. Musical director Kevin N. Wines guides a gifted cast, led by Kaelin Curran (Beth), William Joseph Bureau (Joe Josephson), Ashley Nicole Martin (Scotty), Hallie Heffernan (Meg Kincaid) and Olivia Mattsey (K.T.), and a talented orchestra through the challenging Sondheim piece.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG leaves the audience forlorn because they know how things turned out and longing for the ways the friendship could have been.
Weathervane Playhouse presents MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG 7:30 p.m. July 19-21 and July 25-28 with a 2 p.m. matinee on July 21 at its theatre (100 Price Road in Newark). For information, call 740-366-4616.