Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Merrily We Roll Along
Merrily We Roll Along, which opened Saturday at the Gateway Theatre in a 42nd Street Moon production, concerns three people who were once friends but whose bonds were broken through their collective selfishness and ambition.
In the show (with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth, based on a Kaufman and Hart play), time moves backwards. It begins in 1976, with Franklin Shepard (Will Giammona), once an accomplished composer, now a successful Hollywood producer celebrating the opening of his latest film with a big party at his Bel Air mansion. In attendance is old friend Mary Flynn (Melissa Wolfklain), who once had a best-selling novel but has since fallen into the league with the enemy and become that lowest of creatures, a theatre critic. Ouch.
Neither Frank nor Mary seem terribly happy when someone mentions that their former friend Charlie Kringas (DC Scarpelli) has won the Pulitzer for his latest play. At the party, Mary, once a teetotaler but now a committed alcoholic, upbraids Frank for hanging out with such a shallow crowd. Mary treats everyone at the party with disdain (when a guest says she read Mary's novel "over and over," Mary snaps "Didn't you get it the first time?!"), ultimately breaking up the party with a drunken toast in which she gives Frank a snarky dressing-down.
From there the scenes play out in 1973, 1968, 1967, 1964, 1962, 1960, ultimately ending in 1957 when the trio of friends first come together as idealistic artists with those big dreams.
The show was one of Sondheim's biggest flops when it first opened. (It played only 16 performances before closing, but is being revived this fall on Broadway with Jonathan Groff as Frank and Daniel Radcliffe as Charlie.) The fault was clearly not with the score, for it's one of Sondheim's best and includes one of his most beautiful ballads, the alternately hopeful and haunting "Not a Day Goes By."
Set designer Kuo-Has Lu has created a lovely, simple set that gently evokes a Manhattan skyline, with projections upstage that help establish time and provide context for the action. Director Dennis Lickteig could perhaps have made more use of its various layers, but otherwise his direction serves the text well, with dynamic placement of his performers, especially in scenes where the full cast (of 15) are present.
The best performance of the night is Will Giammona's portrayal of Frank. Giammona has a lovely baritone that he uses to skillfully interpret Sondheim's score. The fact that he is also an accomplished pianist helps immeasurably when playing the role of a composer. Giammona manages also to peel away Frank's layers of cynicism and regret as times marches backward and Frank moves farther and farther from the jaded Tinseltown producer and closer to the idealistic young composer with big plans.
There are a few other standouts in the cast, notably Christine Capsuto-Shulman as Gussie, the Broadway megastar Frank eventually marries. Capsuto-Shulman nicely embodies the sense of entitlement and privilege that tends to accompany stardom–and it doesn't hurt that her long, dark, wavy hair and Roman nose put one in mind of another diva, the late blues/rock singer Amy Winehouse.
Sadly, as an ensemble, the cast never really jells. This is especially noticeable with the three leads, who play characters that are supposedly life-long friends; they never seem to find the chemistry necessary to make that familiarity feel believable. But if you've never seen Merrily We Roll Along, the music is more than enough to make this production worth your time.
Merrily We Roll Along plays through April 9, 2023, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 6:00 p.m. (and at 1:00 pm on April 1), and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$80. For tickets and information, please visit 42ndStreetMoon.org or by calling 415-255-8207.