Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The three main characters in Merrily We Roll Along are in desperate need of Tashlich. These once-best of friends are weighed down with regrets over choices they made, or failed to make, over the course of twenty years. When we meet them, they are adrift and bitter; in their current state, it is hard to picture them doing better, at least in relation to one another.
Theater Latté Da has mounted a beautifully realized production of Merrily We Roll Along at its Ritz Theater home. That is no easy feat, given the show's history. This rarely performed musical is the work of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), librettist George Furth, and director Harold Prince–the same brilliant trio that had created the ground-breaking, award-winning hit Company nearly a dozen years prior. But Merrily We Roll Along was far from a hit, closing just two weeks after its Broadway premiere.
Even the show's detractors had praise for Sondheim's score. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, "To be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals." Just as he wrote rapturous music for hits like Company, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim wrote brilliant music for failed shows like Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along. So much beauty, washed away by a closing notice. Ah, but the creators had the clout to ensure an original cast album was recorded–the day after the closing–and released (on LP, at first). That album was the lifeline for legions of musical theater fans, myself included, to fall in love with Merrily's score and await the day it would be redeemed by a production that got it "right," perhaps with a revised book. Over the years there have been revisions, a couple of songs dropped, and a few new ones added. A 1994 Off-Broadway revival (it lasted seven weeks) is the version that is usually now staged, as is the case at Theater Latté Da.
For most audience members and critics, the problems were twofold: the show's structure; and its cynicism. Merrily We Roll Along is a narrative told in reverse order, as was the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart on which the musical is based. The first scene is set in 1976, with the former friends already apart and embittered. From there, each scene goes back in time in intervals of one to five years, winding up when they started out in 1957. Dramatic tension is not built upon learning how things turn out, but in discovering how much promise they had at the start. In the squandering of their idealism and friendship, caving in to pride and the lure of fame and money, lies the cynicism. When we meet these characters, they are hardwired into disillusioned middle-age, and it is hard to like them or care about how they got to that disagreeable place.
The show circles playwright Charley, writer Mary and, especially, composer Frank. At the end of the story, which is to say, in the first scene, Frank, who has become a successful movie producer, is hosting a fabulous party of Hollywood A-listers to celebrate his latest success, while his wife, a musical theater diva named Gussie, sniffs around the rumors of Frank having an affair with his new leading lady. Enter Mary, as a voice from Frank's past, drunkenly scolding him for how far he has fallen from an artist trying to create meaningful work that will make a difference, to a shill for the corporate entertainment industry. She mentions Charley and a pall spreads over the room. In the next scene, we learn why Frank cannot tolerate hearing the name of his once best friend, in a brilliant musical nervous breakdown ("Franklin Shepard, Inc"). We roll backward through Frank's two marriages, Mary's unrequited love for Frank, Charley's moralistic rants, and finally to the birth of the trio's friendship on a rooftop in New York, and their belief that everything was possible. With Charley's words and Frank's music they will change the world, achingly expressed in the beautiful anthem, "Our Time."
The Latté Da production succeeds in overcoming some of the barriers that have kept this show from finding the widespread acclaim of other Sondheim works. It has three immensely likeable–to say nothing of hugely talented–actors in the leads. Reese Britts as Frank, arguable the primary character, depicts a man whose passivity has allowed him to become complacent, deceitful and self-absorbed–and yet, he broadcasts a native charisma along with a hint of the idealist within, tolerating rather than adoring his fame and fortune. Britts has now appeared in three consecutive Latté Da shows: smashing as the star of Jelly's Last Jam; as a member of the altogether excellent ensemble in Twelve Angry Men; and now in this star turn. With an expressive voice, great dance moves and good looks, Mr. Britts is on a streak, and I look forward to what comes next.
Becca Hart, as Mary, keeps her character from being defined as the self-pitying, sharp-tongued alcoholic we meet in the first scene. She draws our sympathy to Mary, recognizing the generosity–or is it masochism–that keeps her in the orbit of these friends despite repeatedly having her heart broken. She brings her heartfelt voice to "Like It Was" and "Not a Day Goes By" (in a reprise sung with Frank as he weds his first wife), a hopeful lilt to "Old Friends," and lowers the boom in "Now You Know." Dylan Frederick is Charley, a likable nebbish, the guy who ruins everyone's fun bringing up their espoused values, but Frederick imbues Charley with such sincerity and affection that we are grateful for his integrity. He delivers a swell "Good Thing Going" that describes precisely what is happening to Charley and Frank as they sing, under duress, for a room full of vain glitterati.
All the supporting roles are in equally good hands. Vie Boheme is terrific as Gussie, a predator who homes in on dewy-eyed Frank, and brings a self-serving slant to "Growing Up," one of the songs Sondheim added to Merrily after its first, failed incarnation. Britta Ollman has a less showy role as Frank's first wife Beth, but is greatly appealing. She delivers two different readings of the poignant "Not a Day Goes By"–one at the start and one at the end of a marriage–to wrenching effect. Of the other cast members, Kim Kivens, Ryan London Levin, Charlie Clark and Tod Peterson especially shine.
Director Peter Rothstein has given the show constant motion, as those backward-cycling years spin (not so merrily, it turns out) along, and ensures the reverse chronology is never confusing. Ensemble scenes, like the overly sophisticated parties and the cruise ship send-off, are made to feel more populated than the small-scale production might allow, while intimate scenes are sharply focused to convey what is germane to that moment. Renee Guittar's choreography enlivens the production, with especially clever small ensemble staging for "Old Friends" and "It's a Hit!"
The production looks great, which is a surprise, considering we start out with a starkly bare stage, a rack of costumes hanging in front of the unadorned rear stage wall. Grant E. Merges' lighting contributes enormously, and Rich Hamson's costumes capture the subtle shifts in styles as the years turn backwards. Music director Jason Hansen leads a band of five musicians, sounding much like the full pit orchestras of the years the show covers, with Elaine Burt's trumpet conjuring memories of gloriously brassy Broadway overtures.
Even a lovingly crafted production, with a marvelously talented cast and crew, cannot fix all the problems in Merrily We Roll Along. For instance, we never really see how Mary becomes so lovelorn over Frank. Was there ever anything more than their first meeting, impassioned by the possibilities for their generation, rather than for each other, to suggest she had a chance with him? And why must the plot insist that Charley and Frank remain life-long collaborators in order to be friends? If only they could have drawn a line between their professional partnership and their friendship, at least the latter might have survived. Of course, given that their professional differences were between creating left-leaning theater and commercial fare that made the rich moguls richer, that point may have more resonance in today's polarized society.
Whatever its flaws, Merrily We Roll Along has the beautiful Sondheim score. In Theater Latté Da's skilled and sensitive hands, it is being given as splendid a staging as one could wish for. The fall theater season is young, but I am willing to go out on a limb to say this is one of the very best things that will roll along. Go!
Merrily We Roll Along runs through October 30, 2022, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $45.00 - $71.00. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID, cash only. 20% discount for military personnel and veterans (up to four tickets). Members of Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union - $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. Tickets for zip code 55413 neighborhood residents are available for $13.00 at the box office during regular business hours, cash only. For tickets and information, call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Book: George Furth; Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Orchestrations; Jonathan Tunick; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreographer: Renee Guittar; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Costume Design: Rich Hamson Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Eric Gonzalez; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Associate Music Director: Russ Kaplan; Technical Director/Assistant Scenic Designer: Bethany Reinfeld; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Managers: Z Makila and Austin Schoenfelder.
Cast: Ronnie Allen (Ru/Photographer/Minister/ensemble), Vie Boheme (Gussie), Mathias Brinda * (Frank Jr.), Reese Britts (Frank), Camryn Buelow (Meg/Scottie/ensemble), Charlie Clark (Joe/Terry), Dylan Frederick (Charley), Becca Hart (Mary), Kim Kivens (KT/Mrs. Spencer/Evelyn/ensemble), Josiah Leeman * (Frank Jr.), Ryan London Levin (Tyler/Judge/ensemble), Britta Ollmann (Beth/Newswoman/ Dory), Tod Petersen (Jerome/Mr. Spencer/Newsman/ensemble). *Appearing in alternate performances