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Review: 'Merrily' Rolls Into Tedium

What can you do when... despite a troupe of shining actors, classy footwork, an acute orchestra and crisp design... the core of your show is rot? Furthermore, once you take a bite, you tempt musical-theatre blasphemy to daresay it has Sondheim's name behind it? Oh what do you do! You do what TheatreWorks has valiantly done (in closing its 37th honorable year) and make the best with what you've got.

Merrily We Roll Along has miles of pot-holed history after closing on Broadway with only 16 performances; and now holds a unique place in the Hall of Fame of reputable flops.  After some retooling (but not enough to clear the road of debris) the musical once again stretches its legs, thrusting talented artists and a committed audience into 2 1/2 hours of tedium.  Yet Robert Kelley's production is not without worth. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along follows the success-and-fate-driven path of three close friends in New York City, moving backwards from 1976 to 1957.  Frank is the sexy and eager composer paired with his best friend and lyricist, the quirky Charley.  A resilient Mary fits between the two boys, always the peace-maker never the girlfriend.  Almost 20-years of drinking, elbow-rubbing, and self-preservation in "the business" have torn the friends apart.

Trained ears recognize Sondheim's familiar techniques throughout the score, beginning with the slick opening sequence, "That Frank" echoing Company (Furth and Sondheim's first collaboration).  Amongst the merrymaking at Frank's movie premiere party, each player shapes one-liners around the title refrain.  Other numbers introduce the panicking up-and-down of the scale: a style Sondheim coined later in Sunday in the Park with George.

Damon Kirsche is tall and trim with dimples and a cleft chin.  His Frank is dapper and swims in a beautiful baritone, especially showcased in 1968 "Growing Up."  That is, until Riette Burdick busts in as his easily detestable love-interest, Gussie.

Bounding through rapid-fire lyrics, Robert Brewer amuses as a suffering Charley, unafraid to assail Frank on-air in "Franklin Shepard, Inc."  Mary (Molly Bell) also dishes some tough love, drilling Frank outside a Manhattan courthouse of the best things that ever could happen.  Lianne Marie Dobbs, Frank's first-wife Beth, is solid in "Not a Day Goes By," one of the only emotive songs of the show.

The lack of character development and unfeeling melodies begins to wear you down.  By the time the trio sports giant wigs for a night-club gig of "Bobbie and Jackie and Jack," you almost feel disrespected for having to sit through another empty song.  Phoniness rules the repetitive and one-dimensional book and tunes: "Nothing can kill old friends"… except perhaps singing the refrain 40 times by curtain.

Structural faults aside, the performers are spot-on, delivering little surprises along the way.  The five-part harmony at the end of "It's A Hit" is a hit! The once-cut song, "The Blob" is sassy and droll as "the most important people in the most important city in the most important you know what" chatter about Albee, Warhol, and Kurosawa.  Nods to Carrie Madsen and Christopher Maikish (ensemble) for always appearing to be having more fun than the rest!

Joe Ragey's sliding set featuring a modest skyline in blue and purple hues is both non-distracting and uninteresting.  However there is a clever nod to the Alvin Theatre (where Merrily first opened) in the second act.  The decade costumes designed by Fumiko Bielefeldt are nostalgic and warm, especially in the 1973 scene.

Finally we find the three friends where we expected them to be: the beginning.  In a charming finale atop an apartment building, Frank, Charley, and Mary look ahead to "Our Time."  To climb their way to the top, they must descend from a roof in 1957.  And it's all down-hill from there.

Merrily We Roll Along: music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, directed by Robert Kelley through April 29, 2007.  TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (500 Castro St. at Mercy). 2hrs 45mins with one intermission. Tickets ($20-$60) are available at 650-903-6000 or www.theatreworks.org. Photos by David Allen.


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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)