entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
based on the original play by
George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Music Directed by Paul. S. Katz
Choreography by Kirsten McKinney
Set Design by David Fortuna
Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom
Sound Design by Christopher Ostrom
Costume Design by Derek Holbrook
Projection Design by Chris Daigneault
Production Stage Manager Kyle Rudgers
Franklin Shepard....................Colin Stokes
Charley Kringas....................Richard Carey
Mary Flynn............................Anne James
Joe Josephson...................Michael D. Brown
Photographer......................Mark H. Haddad
TV Newswoman...................Laura Lynn Needle
Mrs. Spencer....................Katrina Romanoff
Mr. Spencer........................Michael Ricca
Sometimes it's impossible for a reviewer to see a show because it comes encumbered with ideas or history that never show up onstage, but cannot be ignored. The SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of "Merrily We Roll Along" is a classic case.
Even the credit "Originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince" calls up footnotes much longer than any review about the show's unhappy sixteen-performance initial run. Then too, Stephen Sondheim's magnificent music and lyrics have had a life, on record and in anthology-shows, that makes this palpable flop as familiar to theater-buffs as any long-run success. People who love the score wonder what George Furth's book, designed to hold that score together, is like --- and the prevailing wisdom has always been that "the book needs work".
Notice that even this review hasn't come to the SpeakEasy production until the third paragraph --- and even here there are off-stage aspects crowding into the field of vision. SpeakEasy is now a Resident Company at the Boston Center for The Arts, and in notes on this opening production of the season Artistic Director Paul Daigneault has expressed a desire to reach past a reputation as a "gay-centered company" to wider artistic possibilities.
"But aside from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"
In a word, uneven.
The plot starts with a Hollywood party celebrating the financial triumph of composer-turned-producer Frank Shepard, whose marriage is shattering amid insincere sounds from sucking sycophants. It traces Frank's life back through time in eight scenes that represent key decisions that created that life. They all involve chasing new women and turning out music-for-hire to pay for them --- despite the advice of his two oldest and best friends: Charley Kringas his lyricist, and Mary Flynn whose love of him is unrequited.
This production starts with a repentent Frank, alone on the same roof-top that started his career twenty years before. Then as the show runs back through Frank's,life, Colin Stokes' eager, fresh-faced smile betrays an uncomplicated innocence absolving him of any selfishness, any regret, any deliberate or accidental cruelty. He seems never to have had principals, so leaving them behind never causes him any visible pain. He's always a nice guy, and people always love him, despite anything he or they say to the contrary.
In their partnership, Frank makes all the decisions, and Charley goes along, protesting and finally rebelling. Richard Carey plays him essentially as a foil. His arguments always fail, he commits himself whole-heartedly to friendship and thus to compromise again and again in such a way that he has no real convictions, and no real substance apart from Frank. Because he is flat, Frank is flat because he has nothing to push against.
Mary Flynn is Frank's loving friend and severest critic, someone who sees the compromises and their consequences, tries repeatedly to interfear or reason or cajole, but is held back by the awareness that her love for Frank gives her a less than objective stake in every outcome. Anne James gets more and more luminously beautiful as the play unfolds. It is not so much out of the interactions between the characters, but simply the love in her face as she looks at him that makes her feelings obvious.
Then there are Frank's two wives. Beth is a pretty performer pregnant at their marriage who encourages Frank to make money first and art later, and who vindictively bankrupts him with divorce settlements. Gussie is the devil incarnate, demanding he write her a much-needed fun, frothy hit and promising a lush life and her own lush rewards in exchange.
These two characters are different in every way. Small, slim and blonde, Valerie Sullivan's Beth is tightly compressed around her expectations of love and family both in marriage and divorce. Big, broad and brunette, Carol Stearns' Gussie is a thrice-married opportunist determined to make money by employing Frank's talents of every sort, and grandiloquently spiteful when his attentions move on.
And despite excellent instant-character cameos, the other eleven members of the cast merely provide a continually corruscating mise-en-scene. Michael Ricca and Katrin Romanoff as Beth's delightfully horrid parents, Michael D. Brown as an affably arrogant impressario, Mark H. Hadad as a papparazzo --- everyone steps out of what has to be called a chorus to create a momentary reality, and merges back into the ever-changing tapestry of background.
Yet, at the risk of egregious I-strain, I must admit I found the production thin and unconvincing. Nowhere was Director Paul Daigneault's insightful sensitivity to character in evidence. Only two scenes, both explicating Mary Flynn's frustrated love, were strikingly blocked. The complicated party-scenes had no bite of believability, and their intricate conversational by-play had no snap. I was left wondering why I was less than impressed.
But then, I'm biased. The recorded score has grown as I listened more and more into a favorite. And a summer back I saw a production by a high school drama camp out at Curry College that used an older plot, but rose above some obvious cast shortcomings with, frankly, many brighter performances. Reviewing a new production of a show I had liked always presents a conflict of interest, so take this pinch of salt with my opinions.
First of all, there may be just too damn much to cover in the time available. The show at the BCA started at eight, and it was five of eleven when I left the theatre, and I still felt the show was short. Then again, the score is not only magnificent, it's difficult. Just singing all that complicated stuff well is hard enough, without worrying about acting and character and blocking as well, and perhaps the case felt intimidated by the composer. It may also have been necessary to concentrate on acting-while-singing so much that acting while not singing went by the boards; certainly a few more significant pauses could have heightened tensions, even though it lengthened playing time.
Then, the focus on Frank as a nice-guy-with-problems seems to me to devalue the reality of everyone around him. And here let me indulge myself in what I think a reviewer has no business doing. After seeing the drama camp production, and thinking for a long time about how to shape the show, I decided what I might do if I could direct it. My central-focus character would be the one person in the cast who has loved and supported Franklin Shepard through twenty years: the third-banana Mary Flynn.
In the opening scene, Mary drinks herself into a drunken, insulting rage at Frank during that Hollywood party capping his success. But Mary's a novelist, and if I were God (i.e. directing) she'd go directly to the typewriter to write "The Frank Shepard Story", and I'd block the show to make it unfold from Her point-of-view, even to the point of ending each scene with a pinpoint follow-spot on her reacting face. She is the only continually forgiving friend Frank has, and her benign understanding, her attempts to lead him toward fulfillment rather than success could provide a different sort of foil than the more involved but less resistant second banana, Charley. But no doubt my production would take four and three-quarter hours and present other insoluble production problems.
So perhaps it would be better for you to ignore my jaundiced carping and see the show yourself. Certainly the opportunity to see what story holds Sondheim's glorious score together should not be missed.