by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move
Spilt milk, sour grapes and friendships down the drain. Who would have thought that the most sobering musical ending the year could also turn out to be one of the most satisfying.
Audiences just didn’t understand it back in 1981; the opposite linear format of telling a story backwards, or the need to be so depressing. The Broadway production, then directed by Harold Prince, opened to mostly negative reviews, although Sondheim’s score was widely praised. Critics and audiences alike felt it possibly circuitous and the themes left a sour taste in their mouths. And who wanted sit through a recounting of a person’s failures anyway, right?
But life is not a straight line and the road to the top is as jagged as a meat cutter. And when you ‘arrive’, there’s a very good chance you’ll be the only one who’s made it. In Frank Shepard’s case, “It’s lonely at the top” isn’t so much a catch phrase as it is an excruciating reality.
But the story of how he got there is what oddly is soothing and terribly sad.
Merrily We Roll Along is a musical with a book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. It is based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
The story rolls back over 20 years of the life of Franklin Shepard, once a talented, penniless composer of Broadway musicals, who has now abandoned his friends and his songwriting career to become a wealthy producer of Hollywood movies. Merrily We Roll Along curates the key moments in Frank’s life which point precisely to how he got there and what he gave up (ahem…a lot).
Directed by Michael Arden, what might have been a downer years ago, is now refreshed by no less than Arden’s signature dynamics. The play has air. And choreographed by Eamon Foley it is physically patterned much like a dance, where the chore reveals the leading man after abandoning his love, returning to find that she is dead and he is left to wallow in his own grief.
The performances by the entire cast are so wonderfully naturalistic as they are set in the 70’s. There are more than a few stellar moments in this show notably and especially by Wayne Brady who plays lead character and colleague/friend of Frank, Charley Kringas as well as the leading man himself. Aaron Lazar (Franklin Shepard) delivers a completely likeable Shepard throughout the journey even through the hurtful, neglectful moments. Donna Vivino as Shepard’s other best friend Mary Flynn is so down to earth that even in the crazy there is no lack of empathy. Whitney Bashor as Beth Spenser, Shepard’s wife, adds an interesting perspective after that of Kringas and calls up the question, “Who’s fault really is the dissolution of friendships?”.
Really, though, Merrily We Roll Along, in every way is a hit.