SpeakEasy is by far Boston's best small theater. Every year Paul Daigneault and company bring us plays and musicals we just wouldn't see without going to New York. Some are great investments, like SpeakEasy's searing "Twilight of The Golds" last year. Some, like their current production of Stephen Sondheim's only flop "Merrily We Roll Along" (which closed on Broadway after sixteen performances), are just plain perplexing.
SpeakEasy's energetic, talented cast does give the musical a run for its money. The story, though, isn't compelling, and a Sondheim musical without bite is like pizza without cheese: interesting, curious maybe but not satisfying. In the final analysis, "Merrily We Roll Along" is "Company" without the great songs. The plot is basically the same except that in "Merrily.. " the character has too many wives instead of none.
The music, too, suffers in comparison to Sondheim's most celebrated and sardonic scores. "Not A Day Goes By" just isn't as clever as "Every Day A Little Death". Sealing its fate is Sondheim's leading character, a composer who explains he writes musicals "to state ideas." Well, there really aren't any ideas in "Merrily..". If you can get through Act I, though, Act II more closely resembles vintage Sondheim. At the risk of sounding like one of Woody Allen's fans copmplaining that his later films just aren't funny, I have to say that by the time you get to Act II it's too late. You just don't care about these people.
What SpeakEasy has going for it is a quality cast, with two dynamic performances as the aforementioned wives. Carol Stearns is the sexy, bitchy prima donna whose voice is as voluptuous as the rest of her. Valerie Sullivan shines as the sweet, wronged first wife of Colin Stokes' dour composer. Two fabulous women with gorgeous voices. But no, he's not happy.
Richard Carey is almost as funny as he was in"Jeffrey" last season and Anne James gives a bravura performance as the composer's tipsy comrade-at-arms. Daigneault's direction is brisk and lively (with smart choreography from Kirsten McKinney) and Paul S. Katz' musical direction positively sparkles. Barbara J. Oddo's period costumes for three decades of disastrous fashion history are simply a marvel. (The fashion show alone is worth the price of admission.) Christopher Ostrom's lighting is evocative. If only those rhymes weren't so awful: "We'll be singing like the birds; me with the music, you with the words." Yuck! Give me "mal;ice in the palace: please.