Porchlight Artistic Director’s intimate staging of Sondheim’s 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG vividly brings to life this piece that chronicles the lives of three close friends as they attempt to gain professional success as artist. While composer Frank Shepard strikes it big as a Hollywood film composer and producer, he leaves his closest friends—lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas and writer Mary Flynn—in the dust. Despite its sunny title, MERRILY is a rather cynical musical about friendship and the revelation that it’s quite lonely at the top. The twist—and one of the main reasons why MERRILY is rarely produced and challenging to stage—is that the musical takes place in reverse chronological order. We see these three “Old Friends” move from jaded success stories back to idealistic hopefuls just starting their careers and forging their tight-knit friendships. MERRILY makes a great deal of sense right now because we are living in mighty cynical times—and watching these central characters contend with the demands of Hollywood has an added sting in this moment.
While MERRILY is quite a dark show, it’s undeniably one of my favorite Sondheim musicals—and Porchlight’s production does well to demonstrate why this is the case. MERRILY has many bittersweet and downright bitter moments, but Porchlight’s delightful ensemble also brings so much positive energy to the many cheerier moments. The production also cleverly uses Anthony Churchill’s projections to situate us in each moment of the characters’ lives, thereby eliminating any confusion in the show’s timeline. Bill Morey’s costume designs similarly signal the changes in fashion, and Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Greg Pinsoneault’s flexible set design maneuvers through a wide variety of spaces.
Of course, the beating heart of MERRILY comes in the roles of Frank, Charley, and Mary, and here Porchlight succeeds mightily. Jim DeSelm essays Franklin’s vocals nicely and captures the character’s affable charm, making it easy to see how he was able to sweet talk his way to big bucks in Hollywood. DeSelm could do more to lean into the more jaded, money hungry side of Frank. As written by Sondheim and book writer George Furth, Frank is supposed to be a real anti-hero: charming enough to win his friends and colleagues over, but slimy enough to be easily trapped by the promise of success. DeSelm could be yet more cynical, but he does play well the part of bewildered friend—as his Frank sees Charley and Mary slipping away, he leans fully into the desperation. Porchlight could not ask for a better performer than Matt Crowle as Charley. Crowle seems born to play the role. And though it may be trite to say so, he makes Charley’s big, harried number “Franklin Shepard Inc.” a tour de force. Crowle makes such interesting choices with vocals and dynamics in the number but also conveys Charley’s increasing frustration with a bold and mesmerizing physicality. Neala Barron’s powerhouse vocals are on stunning display as Mary, and she also nails her character’s spiral (or in this case, beginning) moment of darkness and lovesick pining for Frank. She makes Mary’s vocally complex solo numbers “Like It Was” and “Now You Know” among the highlights of the night.
DeSelm, Crowle, and Barron are in good company here with the supporting players as well. The ensemble is solid overall. As Broadway star and Frank’s second wife Gussie Carnegie, Keely Vasquez sings like a dream and also manages to garner sympathy in a role that’s one-sided on the page. As Frank’s first love Beth, Aja Wiltshire brings great pathos to her signature number “Not A Day Goes By.” The ensemble harmonizes beautifully on the title number and the transitions that reprise that same melody. Despite the fact that Sondheim pokes fun at the critics who deem his numbers “un-hummable” in the famous song “Opening Doors” here, MERRILY represents one of his catchiest scores.
Though it flopped in its initial Broadway run, this critic considers MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG to be among Sondheim’s greatest triumphs. For those looking to revisit MERRILY or to experience it for the first time (as is the case here), Porchlight’s production is a worthy chance to spend a night with these “Old Friends.”
Porchlight’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is now extended through March 17 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $33-$60. Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Read the original review on BroadwayWorld.com.
Photo by Michael Courier