Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Merrily We Roll Along"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Larry Stark


"Merrily We Roll Along"

Music And Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth

Directed by Lisa Hackman
Music Director Jeremy Lang
Choreography by Michelle Estrada

Scenic Design by Amy Vlastelica
Lighting Design by Philip Galler
Costume Design by Deborah Hobson
Sound Design by Ben Markham
Props Design by Lisa Watras
Video Design by Gene Preble
Orchestra Manager Ben Davenny
Dance Captain Karla Goo Lang
Assistant Production Manager Jaclyn Campbell
Production Manager Vilas Sridharan
Executive Producer P. K. Newby
Technical Director Martin Kemp
Assistant House Manager Rosalyn Chi
House Manager Heather Goff
Assistant Stage Manager Kaitlyn Chantry
Stage Manager Curtis Wright

Mary Flynn................Katie Pickett
Franklin Shepard..........Don Ringuette
Charley Kringas........Michael Kripchak
Beth.......................Shannon Muhs
Gussie Carnegie.........Frances Betlyon
Joe Josephson............Kevin Ashworth
Frank Jr. .................Tim Traversy
Mr. Spencer...............Jeff Phillips
Mrs. Spencer.................Gwen Sweet
Bunker/Ensemble............Bobby Daglio
Terri/Ensemble..........Naomi Gurt Lind
Dory/Ensemble...............Lauren Hall
Scotty/Ensemble...........Jocelyn Hesse
Ru/Ensemble..............Karla Goo Lang
Jerome/Ensemble.............Greg Lohman
Tyler/Ensemble............Clint Randall
K.T./Ensemble.............Katria Shinay
Meg/Ensemble...........Erin Tchoukaleff

ORCHESTRA
Conductor.........................Jeremy Lang
Winds(Clarinets/Saxes).........Andrew Bergman
Bass..............................Ben Davenny
Piano/Synthesizer...............Karin Denison
Trumpet...............Laura Garwin, Ken Jones
Trombone......................Tim Lewandowski
Drums/Percussion...............George Nickson
Winds(Flute/Oboe/Clarinets/Saxes...Jeri Sykes

Well, it took Stephen Sondheim and George Furth nearly fifteen years of tinkering before getting "Merrily We Roll Along" right --- and took The Longwood Players about two months of rehearsal to set it onstage and make it sing. The production that will be up for another week-end at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre (Don't Miss It!) features eighteen performers, every one of which plays at least one fully-developed, believable character involved in an engrossing modern tale of wrong turns, missed opportunities, and empty triumphs --- all with a score that will never die.

The plot walks backwards through the entwining lives of three old friends who end up --- in the first scene --- rich, successful yet unhappy at their movie-premier party in 1976's Hollywood. With on-stage costume-changes the trio relives landmark experiences all the way back to a night in 1957 when the three of them came together on a New York rooftop watching the first man-made satellite (Sputnik) open a whole new age of glowing posibilities.

Charley Kringas (played here astonishingly well by Michael Kripchak) writes plays and lyrics and clings to a vision of using the power of musical theater to make people think and to make society improve. Were Charley to get his way, he and his new friend would be a new Brecht-Weill duo, with their three years of work on a show called "Turn Left" re-creating America.

But it's the composer-half of this partnership, Franklin Shepard, who makes the money-making decisions to turn out a quick score for a popular hit and to follow its success to a movie career, to make not words OR music come before The Contract, and who find himself less a working artist than "Franklin Shepard INC." Don Ringuette who plays him is careful to keep Frank a person not a villain who can say "What I regret is all the times I said Yes when I should have said No" even as he rationalizes his need for money over that for integrity.

The third part of the trio ("Who's like us? Damn few!"), briefly successful novelist Mary Flynn, has always seemed to me the key to the show's success. Everyone but Frank himself knows she's in love with him: her final break with him (in that first catastrphc party-scene) is the story's climax; her tearful mirroring of the love-song at Frank's first marriage --- these make her the neglected conscience of the show. (I believe the novelist is really Writing The Play as it unfolds!) Luckily, Longwood Players has powerhouse performer Katie Pickett forcing this poignantly compelling figure into every stage of the morality-tale.

But in this production not only the central trio, but everyone comes vibrantly alive. Shannon Muhs is Frank's first wife --- morphing from performer to mother --- and Frances Betlyon his second --- using Frank's talent to make herself a star. Even "the Ensemble," which is The Blob of taste-makers/taste-followers on both coasts that creates Fame, takes on a personality all its own. Kevin Ashworth plays a settled, satisfied producer of empty hits; Gwen Sweet and Jeff Phillips are stony parents reluctant to let their daughter marry a mere penniless composer; Tim Traversy is the loved but neglected young Frank Jr.; but everyone in that Ensemble also has a name and, here, gets a chance to become an individual.

That's the work of Lisa Hackman, who has directed the show as a group effort at recreating 20 years of American experience. Choreographer Michelle Estrada and Music Director Jeremy Lang have kept music and movement in service to the story, and the Orchestra has a great beat that accompanies rather than overwhelming the singing. (But stick around; after final bows This Crew Cooks!)

I have always loved the Original Cast Recording, and ten years ago I fell in love as well with the Book --- to the point that "shortened" versions of "Merrily" that surfaced left me cold. But here, with Mary Flynn restored as an equal part of the plot, I think the show has finally survived its years of tinkering try-outs and is ready for Prime Time.
Thanks to Rhe Longwood Players for giving it exactly that chance to shine.

Love,
===Anon.
( a k a larry stark )

REVIEWS OF PREVIOUS PERFORMANCES:
Larry Stark 1996
Larry Stark 1997
Caroline Burlingham Ellis 2004

"Merrily We Roll Along" (31 March - 8 April)
THE LONGWOOD PLAYERS
Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA
1(617)566-3513

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