Entertainment » Theatre

Merrily We Roll Along

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Saturday Sep 16, 2017
Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Merrily We Roll Along."
Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Merrily We Roll Along."  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

"How did you get there from here?" sings an ensemble member to Franklin Shepard in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along," but it is a question that applies to the musical itself, being given a triumphant revival at the Huntington Theatre Company.

Since it appeared in 1981, "Merrily" has been something of a bastard child amongst Sondheim shows. Maligned by critics and audiences when it opened in 1981, it was said to have put the famed partnership between Sondheim and Harold Prince that dominated Broadway in the 1970s on hold. (They reunited in 2003 for a production of "Bounce.")

What bothered critics and audiences most was its muddle of concepts: told in a series of flashbacks that move its narrative backward in time, its biggest sin was that it was performed by teenage actors in t-shirts, a framing device more suitable for an off-Broadway house than the Alvin Theatre where it ran for just 16 performances. Add to it the show opened cold in New York without an out-of-town tryout and every fix and alternation made the tabloids.

Aimee Doherty and Mark Umbers  

Seen in a fishbowl, the show's uniqueness was seen as its greatest fault. But its original cast album, which preserved the composer/lyricist's innovative and most Broadway-sounding score for posterity, kept it alive. Sondheim and James Lapine reworked it, with new songs and changes to the libretto, in 1985 in a version that is now the authorized version; but even then "Merrily" never fully connected as its creators, including the late George Furth who adapted the 1934 Kauffman and Hart play on which it is based, had intended.

Happily some three decades later "Merrily" comes into its own with this production, first seen in London five years ago under the direction of actress/singer Maria Friedman. This is no small feat. Not only does this musical challenge audiences with a narrative that regresses in time, but it is also an inside show business story with a characters and situations that aren't quite warm and cuddly, and a theme -- that commercial success only compromises artistic integrity -- that has always seemed downright quaint in an age where money rules, especially on Broadway. Is the sin of Franklin Shepherd, the show's anti-hero, so bad that he's constantly berated by his working partner Charlie Kringas and his best girl pal Mary Flynn for selling out? It has always been the central problem with the show.

Yet at the Huntington Friedman puts this on the back burner; instead she plays up the interpersonal relationships that propel the story forward (or backward, if you please), and in the process give it a relatable edge. There is a perfect conjunction between the brittle, melodramatic narrative and the bright and brassy score. No longer is "Merrily" a puzzle needed to be solved. It is an organic piece of musical theater that seamlessly flows from its questioning opening number to its achingly beautiful finale. If it doesn't bring tears, then don't speak to me.

The hectoring nature of the show isn't as apparent because Ms. Friedman deals less with character archetypes as it has in the past. (In the original production the characters' t-shirts emblazoned the roles they played in Shephard's life.) This change in emphasis proves major. Instead of waiting for the songs (embedded in the minds of many a Sondheim fan) to occur, they flow beautifully from the action as was originally intended.

Eden Espinosa, Jennifer Ellis, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley  

Also this version strengthens key relationships in the story, which begins in 1981 in Hollywood where Shepard is a successful film producer and backtracks 25 years to his humble beginnings in New York. Along the way, the talented composer trades his uniqueness for commercial success. Friedman sets the tone perfectly in the opening scene -- a nasty party in which Shepard's personal life unravels in a tabloid-ready incident involving his wife and his current girlfriend, a rising Hollywood star.

What Friedman does so well is establish the contentious relationships between Shepard his two besties: Mary Flynn, a writer and critic (said to be originally modeled in the Kaufman/Hart play on Dorothy Parker) who is hopelessly in love with Shepard and is at this point in the story a raging alcoholic; and with Charles Kringas, Shepard's long-standing songwriting partner who rants his frustrations bitterly on national television. His number, "Franklin Shepard Inc." is superbly rendered by Damian Humbley with just the right blend of anger and concern.

Indeed Friedman balances the emotional subtexts of the musical's early scenes like an expert tightrope walker, establishing the dynamic of idealistic dreams and hard reality that drives the musical. She is helped here with the changes that Lapine and Sondheim made with the original book, which rounds out Shepard's characters and strengthens that of his second wife, Gussie Carnegie, a musical comedy star right out of "Valley of the Dolls." Played with bitchy confidence by Aimee Doherty, she's something of a sequined tarantula with show-stopping skills.

As the story moves back, how Franklin became involved with Gussie, as well as how his career moves from wanting to change the world with his music to writing popular Broadway musicals, unfolds briskly. The casting of Mark Umbers as Shepard is a plus; not only does he make him likable (no small task), but also the actor grows more youthful as the story regresses, and he sings the role beautifully. Eden Espinosa brings pathos to the heartsick Mary, especially in the rueful "Like It Was," in which she yearns for a more innocent time in her life. Spoiler alert: we get a glimpse of that time in the show's final moments -- the anthemic "Our Time," one of Sondheim's ode to the youthful idealism that ends the musical on a bittersweet note.

That number always stirs, but never as much as it does here. Friedman and her collaborators (especially musical director Eric Stern) solve the long-standing puzzle that is "Merrily We Roll Along," and, in doing so, show why it stands amongst his greatest achievements. In many ways, the show makes a neat companion piece to Sondheim's "Company," which also features a male protagonist in an emotional meltdown; as well as touching on the reflective themes in "Follies," where the past and present merge to unsettling results. But the beauty of this production is how simply it allows the show's unusual concept to breathe. Perhaps if this production had turned up in 1981, the long, checkered history of this show would be different; but let's be happy that it is with us here and now. It is a cause for celebration.

"Merrily We Roll Along continues through October 15 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the Huntington Theatre Company website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].


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