note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wayland (MA) Town Crier
Time works backward in "Merrily We Roll Along," the Stephen Sondheim musical currently delighting audiences at Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theater. Although an unhappy ending starts things off, each scene goes back a little further in time until the show ends with the joyful hopes of the characters' younger selves. The effect is curiously satisfying. We realize early on that although in chronological time the characters are headed for mistakes and disappointment, we ourselves are going to watch them become increasingly innocent and cheerful.
Under the confident direction of Russell R. Greene, both the leads and the
supporting actors burnish the familiar Sondheim contradictions -- his
cynical optimism, his humorous sadness. The glass is half empty; the glass
is half full.
Interestingly, despite songs that have had careers of their own ("Old Friends," "Not a Day Goes By," "Our Time"), the 1981 musical is not performed as often as other Sondheim shows.
The book, written by George Furth, is based on a Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play, which accounts for snappy one-liners reminiscent of a much earlier era. The plot device of time running backward is clever, and there is a richness to the main characters that is not often seen in musicals.
But at first, it is not clear that we are in for a good time. At Vokes last Friday, the opening chorus was a bit shaky, and the question it posed -- "How did we get here?" -- seemed too cerebral. It's hard to know if "here" is a geographical place or a state of being. Sondheim likes his audiences off-balance.
The motif is familiar. We meet the outwardly successful but personally miserable Frank (Peter Adams), who is hosting a party for a coterie of sycophants. What seems to be developing is another version of Sondheim's "Company" -- in which admirers revolve around an indecisive hero as planets revolve around the sun.
There is also a foreshadowing of the later Sondheim show "Sunday in the Park With George," which addresses the struggle to be true to art and again features the hero's friends revolving around him like planets around the sun. Is Sondheim once more using his own conflicts and friendships as a theme?
Yes and no. Yes, the protagonist of "Merrily We Roll Along" is a songwriter like Sondheim, and all the characters are defined by their interest is his doings. But in this version of Hero Caught Between Art and Commerce, there are two satellites with a pull equal to the central sun's: Charley and Mary, Frank's tried and true buddies.
It's a treat to hear Donnie Baillargeon's beautiful voice in the role of Charley and to witness the depth of his portrayal. He should perform more often. His angry diatribe "Franklin Shepard Inc." -- on a television show hosted by a hilarious interviewer -- is a tour de force.
Peri Choteau, in a powerful performance as Frank's tragicomic buddy Mary, develops her character backwards from a 1976 despairing drunk to a 1957 girl in love. Vokes regular David Berti portrays the sometime producer and longtime jilted husband Joe, doing an outstanding job in a more subsidiary role than he's usually assigned.
And Tara Faulkner is noteworthy as Frank's first wife, Beth Spencer. Her heartbroken delivery of "Not a Day Goes By," followed by her hopeful rendition of the same song seven years earlier (in the show's backward chronology), packs a wallop. In addition, she manages to be very funny in the 1960 Kennedy sketch that she performs with Frank and Charley ("Bobby and Jackie and Jack").
Charlotte (Carly) Skehan is sweet as Frank and Beth's little girl, Frankie. And Wayland resident Jon Saxton has a nice cameo as Mr. Spencer, a conservative Texan wary of accepting an impoverished songwriter as a son-in-law.
A contemporary political subtext came and went in this production. In the opening, when red, white and blue costumes and bunting seemed to serve little purpose, it didn't work. But it drew a huge laugh during the 1973 television-news scene, when a buoyant announcer stated that Roe v. Wade had finally settled the choice question once and for all.
Judy Wood produced the show, Mario Cruz directed the live orchestra, and the inimitable Don Boroson was vocal director. The choreography was by Jennifer Condon, and the set design by Steve McGonigle. "Merrily We Roll Along" runs through Nov. 12. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.