By SHARON EBERSON
Merrily We Roll Along is a musical notorious for its lack of merriment. But there is plenty of reason to make merry at the New Hazlett Theater, where the talent onstage and that gorgeous Sondheim score reign, in a new Front Porch Theatricals production.
The show that starts with palpable anguish and inexorably works its way back in time to promise unfulfilled has been lovingly and appealingly interpreted by stage-and-screen actress Daina Michelle Griffith, making a blockbuster directorial debut.
The hard truth of the Merrilly, of course, is that one of Stephen Sondheim’s most complex and beloved scores may capture your heart, but the journey can be a bitter pill to swallow – the sweetness of possibilities and best friends forever comes at the end, with the knowledge of all the wrong turns along the way.
Merrily We Roll Along has for four decades tantalized theatermakers, with its unwieldy, beguiling premise. It baffled even its creators, the legendary Company trio of Sondheim, George Furth and director Hal Prince. The show famously bombed in its debut in 1981, and for the past 40 years, others have dared to rework the tale and do justice to the timeless score.
Merrily We Roll Along has been extensively retooled in those decades, with notable productions including an Olivier Award-winning London production in 2002 and a starry production bound for Broadway next month.
But first, it’s Griffith’s turn, along with a treasure trove of Pittsburgh-based artists.
The production displays her obvious affinity for the material, with an eye toward clarity and emotional depth. Her flair for movement also shines, in a musical that has few opportunities for big numbers.
Her Merrily, fast-moving and heart-rending, is Griffith’s uncompromising vision, working with music director Douglas Levine and choreographer Alex Manalo. The game cast is uniformly in fine voice as it maneuvers about a Johnmichael Bohach set that serves as everything from a gala celebration to a beautifully lit rooftop.
Having listened to this score for years, it was enlightening to see the story spring to life and a treat to place beloved songs such as “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By” in context. There’s also the further appreciation for Sondheim’s meta moments, such as an aspiring composer throwing a verbal pie-in-the-face at critics who just want a straightforward melody out of him.
Irony and sarcasm are often Merrily’s calling cards – more often than not, delivered as both funny and stinging. To the point is a favorite song, deliciously realized by Nathaniel Yost as playwright/librettist Charley. “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” consists of Charley interrupting an interview after he has learned that writing partner Frank (Dan Mayhak) has gone Hollywood. It’s a song that brilliantly propels the action forw … backward, in this case.
The main thrust of Merrily We Roll Along is the 20-year seduction of Franklin Shepard, a once promising composer, dedicated to his craft, who opts for wealth and fame as a movie producer. His inevitable fall – where the show begins – creates insurmountable fissures in the friendships that had been the pillars of his life.
The cautionary tale is based on a 1934 play by Pittsburgh native George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, also presented in reverse order – in this case, leading up to the meeting of young Frank and Charley, befriending future novelist Mary (Catherine Kolos). By then we know Frank is seen as a sellout by family man Charley and alcoholic Mary (who has become a “drama critic,” of all things!).
Mayhak’s Frank has moments of regret on his way to the top, but he mostly is all too willing to fall under the spell of a devious diva – Michaela Isenberg as Gussie, whose words drip with insincerity. Gussie makes mincemeat of Frank’s first wife, the innocent Beth (Marnie Quick), and harsh choices begin to take their toll.The action unfolds with an animated cast of 19.
Hope Anthony plays a gossip-conscious interviewer, Victor Aponte takes a journey to becoming a wealthy inventor, and David Ieong, a Front Porch mainstay, plays a stereotypical Broadway producer and Gussie’s husband. They are part of an outstanding, versatile ensemble, fulfilling multiple roles, that includes Missy Moreno, Delana Flowers, Emma Mihok, Ashton Guthrie, McKenna Howell, Carmen LoPresti, Miles Hanna, Matt Fawcett, Corwin Stoddard, and Nikolai Zevchak as Frank’s son.
Kolos, a long-time stage manager who is not often seen onstage, sings Sondheim with a beautiful effortlessness and propels Mary from a hard-drinking grown-up, whose success as a one-time novelist was long ago, to the bubbly girl who found two BFFs in the time of Sputnik.
Kolos, Yost and Mayhak shine individually and when singing through their issues as a trio, fighting and forgiving and forging a connection.
Isenberg’s Gussie is a woman who gets what she wants, and she wants Frank, who’s married to Beth … Since we are going backward, we don’t meet first wife Beth until late in the first act, and she’s worth the wait. Quick’s Beth delivers an anguished version of “Not a Day Goes By,” perhaps the best-known song from Merrily. It is later reprised – revived in this case? – and joined by Kolos’ Mary as she pines for the oblivious Frank.
Fun bits to watch for, as the bitter end moves toward a promising beginning, is how Merrily marks time, not only in years, but by event references such as the original Roe v. Wade decision. The story ends in 1957, at the start of the space race and the Kennedy family’s ascent to Camelot. It begins in the post-Nixon, Gerald Ford mid-1970s, with the writers take a definite “left turn” along the way.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine how this show took such a wrong turn with Sondheim, Prince and Furth. Can you picture George Furth? Before Merrily, he won the Tony for the book of Company, and he played Van Johnson (among many a Hollywood nervous Nellie) in Blazing Saddles. Sondheim’s previous Broadway show was best musical winner Sweeney Todd.
Whatever clicked on Company was not working during the making of Merrily. Perhaps audiences were not ready for a show that begins with an unhappy ending for its protagonist. The Last Five Years was 20 years away, and the Tony Award for Best Musical that same year went to 42 Street. Whatever the reason then, flash forward to 2023, and Merrily We Roll Along is having a moment that once again puts Front Porch at the forefront of the musical theater zeitgeist, having previously produced Stephen Flaherty’s A Man of No Importance just ahead of it’s award-winning off-Broadway run in 2022.
Merrily, merry or not, marks a huge welcome to Griffith as a director. As Front Porch’s season finale, in a summer that began with Falsettos, it’s a grand night for singing Sondheim and a reminder to cherish old friends.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Front Porch Theatricals production of Merrily We Roll Along is at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side, runs August 18-27, 2023. https://www.frontporchpgh.com/
Read Sharon Eberson’s Merrily preview with Griffith and Kolos here