note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Multi-talented Joey DeMita, founding artistic director of F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company, is closing the 13-year chapter of his Boston theatrical career with Stephen Sondheim’s difficult-to-perform, two-act musical. “Merrily We Roll Along”. DeMita chose the challenging play for two reasons, he says: it was the play that launched his career and F.U.D.G.E. in 2002, and he identifies with the primary characters‘ question and plight -How did he get to be here? Where does he go from here? And what will the future hold for this remarkably talented, award-winning visionary?
DeMita hopes to leave his mark in New York City. Boston’s loss is the Big Apple’s gain.
I understand his reasons for wanting to close his Boston career with this play, but wish he hadn’t. I’m not a fan of Sondheim’s music. Sure, I like the scores of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” the bizarre “Sweeney Todd,” wildly successful “Into the Woods,” Assassins,” and songs from “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” but many songs in “Merrily We Roll Along,” are typically Sondheim -- discordant, and don’t roll along. That said, Conductor Steven Bergman and the eight-piece band strike dramatic chords, making the music sound better.
The plot is typical Sondheim, too. Based on George Furth’s book, the story focuses on a highly successful, wealthy Hollywood producer, Franklin Shepard (sensitively portrayed by Jared Walsh), envy of all society. He has it all- a glamorous, famous Hollywood wife, Gussie Carnegie, (Vanessa Calantropo), who’s self-impressed and overbearing, and a coterie who kowtows to him but don’t like him. hailing him with song”That Frank!”
Shepard wheels and deals, letting his self-respect and integrity take a nose dive, but it doesn’t stop or reform him. He’s cheating on Gussie with an ingenue named Meg. He gave up his dedicated, sweet first wife, Beth, (Katie Preisig) by having an affair with Gussie, who’s married, and deserted his loving son (Connor Thomas Upton) through the years. He also ditched his two best friends and collaborators, Mary Flynn (impressively portrayed by Andrea Giangreco), and Charley Kringas (Adam Schuler), to finagle his way to the top.
The play opens in Hollywood in1976, and travels backward in time, kaleidoscopically unfurling to happier, lighter times and the beginning of Charley, Mary, and Franklin’s devoted friendship in New York City, in 1957, when they meet on a rooftop and dream of success, in song “Our Time”.
As their relationship deteriorates, Charley grows more disgusted and angry with Frank, while Mary has achieved her own fame writing her first best-selling book; but she pines away with unrequited love for Franklin, seeking solace in the bottle.
DeMita usually makes the best use of Arsenal Center for the Arts’ small Black Box Theater, but watching this 19-member cast schlep and wheel around James Petty’s edifice facades and props becomes formulaic after awhile. Also, Sondheim’s work demands a strong cast. Although DeMita’s ensemble members pour their heart and souls into their roles, something lacking.
Joey, we hate to see you go. You have enriched Boston’s small theater experience and legacy.To quote Sondheim, we hope doors open for you and that it’s your time to soar. God bless and Godspeed.
BOX INFO: F.U.D.G.E. Theater Company closes with Stephen Sondheim’s two-act musical, appearing through July 18, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Performances:July 16,17, at 8 p.m.; July 18, at 2,8 p.m.Tickets, $25. Visit www.fudgetheatre.com.