Sunday, February 19, 2012

theatre review MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Encores, February 16

The City Center Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along concludes a two week run today.  The Encores series of semi-staged concerts provides an interesting glimpse into lesser performed shows.  Usually the concerts last less than a week, but with a show like Merrily, one with a phenomenal score by Stephen Sondheim that has never had a Broadway revival, I guess they knew the demand would be so high that they added an extra week of shows months before it started performances. 

I recently wrote about the 30th Anniversary of the opening of the show on Broadway.  Read my posting about that here.  This is yet another show that has an amazing score but suffered from book problems.  Fortunately an original cast recording was made and anyone who has heard it but never saw a production of the show will most likely wonder why the original Broadway production didn't run longer.  The main conceit of the show, and the play the musical was based on, is to show what happens to three close friends at the start of the show, with them basically all disillusioned and some not talking to the others and then go backwards a couple of years at a time to show how they got that way, with the show ending with a scene that shows how the three friends first met, all three of them full of hopes and dreams. I've talked about all of that in my previous blog post, so let's get straight to my review of this production.

Keenan-Bolger, Donnell and Miranda
Directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the Encores concert production was a fairly realized version of the show with the majority of the actors off-book.   With a minimal set design and the orchestra housed on a level above the stage that was also used effectively in several key scenes, this production also used the wall behind the stage and beneath the orchestra for digital projections that clearly and effectively displayed the changes to the characters over the years.  This was most wisely used during the overture where all of the photos and images started in the past and then progressed to the present.   Then as the show went on we saw some of the images we previously saw in the opening but now, as we went backwards in time, to help ground the current scene about to unfold.   The book for this production combines elements of the various revised versions of the show, of which Lapine directed the first major one back in 1985.

Wolfe, Miranda, Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Grupper
The Encores cast was led by Colin Donnell, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger as the three leads Frank, Charley and Mary.  All three were fine in the parts with Miranda and Keenan-Bolger especially memorable for several key moments.  The part of Frank is an extremely difficult one to play since it is basically a shallow part, with most of the events that made him the way he is happening off stage, being talked about but not shown until later (in a scene that happens earlier in time), or not really shown, so there isn't much for an actor to act against.  For example, we still don't really know why Frank turned away from composing to become a Hollywood producer or why he decided to start sleeping with Gussie, which ended his marriage. And while the structure of the play being told backwards basically deprives us of any of the characters being sympathetic for a very long time, Charley and Mary have many more moments than Frank and earlier in the show to latch on to so those parts are much richer to play.  Donnell does get his moments, but they come very late in the show - and he does provide an excellent singing voice for the signature Sondheim songs.  The part of Mary has usually been played by an overweight woman, but the skinny Keenan-Bolger provides the appropriate elements of heartbreak, unrequited love and delusion from the start.  I guess the thinking has been that only overweight women can play someone who isn't loved, but I completely bought Keenan-Bolger's portrayal.  The same goes for Miranda as Charley.  You clearly see how much he loves Frank, even when Frank is obsessed with fame and fortune while Charley realizes those things aren't the ones that should be focused on.  Miranda also does just fine with his character's comical breakdown song, "Franklin, Shephard, Inc."  I especially loved the use of wigs in this production to show the changing hair styles of the times.  In fact Miranda and Keenan-Bolger were virtually unrecognizable in the beginning due to their garish 1970's hair styles.

Donnell and Stanley
The other three supporting parts were all effective and well rounded, especially Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie.  You clearly saw the woman who came from nothing and tries to latch onto whatever she can to make her succeed, even though her life is obviously always empty no matter what she tries to do.  I loved Adam Gruper as Joe, Gussie's husband and the producer of the show that makes Frank and Charley a success.  And Betsy Wolfe as Beth, Frank's first wife, has to launch into probably the best known song from the show, "Not a Day Goes By" with little emotional lead in (considering what made her the way she is we won't see until later) but she more than delivers -making it the devastating song that it is.   She sings the song again in the second act, but of course from a completely different perspective, and makes it just as heartbreaking then too, knowing what we already know happens years later.

Overall Lapine's direction was fine, but the large ensemble cast needed to be better staged as with the small stage space they sometimes got in the way of the main characters.   This made it somewhat hard for us to determine who to focus on, especially in some key moments, particularly the end of the show.

Merrily We Roll Along is still a show with a book that needs some help but the many changes made to the show over the years have helped to better focus it.  The ending, which is really the beginning, with the Sondheim gem "Our Time" is still an emotional, amazingly touching song and there really isn't one bad song in the score.  As I said in my other posting, it is one of those shows that will be continually tried over and over again to get right due mainly to the rich and fulfilling Sondheim score at it's core.  And while this Encores production wasn't able to deliver on all fronts, it was extremely nice to hear that score with this cast and see this show again, even if the problems with the book of the show are still not quite resolved. feature with clips from the show and interviews:

"Old Friends" - rehearsal video with Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda:

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