By Patrick O’Brien
Like many other Stephen Sondheim musicals, time has been kind to Merrily We Roll Along. Or, perhaps, Merrily We Roll Along has been waiting for time to catch up to it.
Since its blunderous Broadway outing in 1981, Sondheim, bookwriter George Furth and dozens of directors and show doctors have tried everything to — say it in unison — emphasize its crackerjack score while mitigating its troubled script.
The root of all obstacles: the scenes play out in reverse order. Thus, the story of the twentysome-year friendship between composer Franklin Shepard, playwright Charley Kringas and novelist Mary Flynn begins in middle-aged acrimony and ends in youthful optimism. The issues forthwith are myriad, but, for starters: the central trio (especially Frank) not only have to be just as convincing as jaded adults as they are starry-eyed teenagers, but they must also be creative and charismatic dynamos to keep attracting each other (and the audience).
As is, (“is” referring to the licensable version of a 1994 revision that has the writers’ approval), Merrily is solid enough, perhaps as solid as it’ll ever get; it’s up to the cast, the director, and even the audience to fill in the rest. And everyone and everything onstage at the Ruth Page Center shows precisely why Porchlight Music Theatre has made a reputation as premiere Sondheim interpreters.
Michael Weber directs with confidence, borrowing (if this reviewer is not mistaken) a few notes from London actress Maria Friedman’s production that has scored high praise from Sondheim himself. His notion of starting the show at the very, very end of linchpin Frank’s life — that is, on his deathbed, a forgotten elder statesmen of Hollywood — has been bandied about elsewhere, as well. These are not knocks; if something works, it works, and in a problem show, one needs everything they can. Starting from such a terminal point at the very least makes the first full scene seem much more vivacious, which is necessary when that’s also the show’s at its most acidic.
Jim DeSelm springs from his wheelchair and molds himself into a movieland wunderkind a la Robert Evans, and never flags from then on. Wholly appropriate for Frank, the man who can’t stop saying “yes” whenever opportunity calls, regardless of his friends’ opinion (or lack thereof). Frank’s true passion, though, is composing, and as time flies backward, DeSelm’s younger selves reveal an excellent pianist.
If Frank is ambitious to the point of lacking integrity, Matt Crowle’s Charley is a perfect inversion: just as dynamic, but so devoted to his original youthful passions and politics that it hurts to see such good intentions drive the wedge further between him and Frank. Neala Barron as Mary, operating parallel to the boys in publishing, tries her best to play peacekeeper, with diminishing returns and at the expense of her own writing career. (That she carries the mother of all torches for Frank is another factor.) Her tragedy comes when she gins up the courage to speak her mind, but only with the aid of too much gin.
This central trio’s contributions are just enough to keep Merrily from devolving into another Lonely At The Top story. It asks pointed, pointed questions not just about success, but about friendship and the ugly realities within. Are bumpy relationships salvageable, or are the bumps evidence of time bombs waiting to explode? (Like in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” the ne plus ultra of Sondheim nervous breakdown songs, Crowle’s interpretation is a worthy addition to the record.) How much effort is a bumpy or doomed friendship worth? Is there ever a single moment when things go wrong, or do the wrongs accumulate to a breaking point?
Like friendships, those questions are why Merrily We Roll Along is called a heartbreaker. (Here, “Our Time” to the very end is as devastating as it is brilliantly simple.) Getting meta, it’s also a love letter to a musical theatre ecosystem that doesn’t exist anymore — dingy basement revue to the big time — or at least it doesn’t exist as Sondheim or Furth knew it. But as long as there’s a younger generation bursting with dreams and an older generation ready to deflate them, “Opening Doors” will remain relevant. (Aaron Benham directs this, the most jazzy of Sondheim scores, with punch and flair.)
Also worth a special mention: Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Greg Pinsoneault’s all-white manse set is charming, but Merrily is the kind of show that was made for projections, and Anthony Churchill’s are exemplary: moving through time, setting the scene, making a joke, but never distracting.
Historically, there were a lot of things going against the original Broadway production of Merrily, perhaps because, coincidentally, the collaboration and friendship between Sondheim and Harold Prince was starting to run dry. But like any other misunderstood musical/cultural critique, future generations can look past all the noise and actually hear the music they were trying to make.
Jazzy tunes, big brains, big hearts: maybe Frank, Charley, and Mary can harmonize, after all, and Porchlight gives them the freedom, night after night, to try and get it right. “Almost right” is just right.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Merrily We Roll Along” through March 11 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. More information and tickets are available here.