Merrily We Roll Along at Signature Theatre

I made it over to Signature Theatre to see their production of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. This musical closed after only 16 performances when it first debuted on Broadway, and it has been one of Sondheim's least produced works. But being a Sondheim fanatic, I had to see it.

It turns out that despite the musical's troubled history, it still has a lot going for it. Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of three close friends - composer Franklin Shepard, his lyricist Charley, and a writer Mary. The musical moves backwards in time. The first scene starts after Franklin has become a successful movie producer. He is surrounded by the rich and influential. As the years roll back we see how Franklin became a success, and how he lost his way and his friends at the same time.

The score is quite good. You've probably heard songs such as "Not a Day Goes By," "Old Friends," and "We Had a Good Thing Going." Also quite memorable is Charley's angry patter song "Franklin Shepard, Inc." This song comes as Charley and Franklin's friendship finally disintegrates when Charley realizes that Frank will always chose money over the great political musical they've dreamed of writing for years.

This musical clearly fits in the Sondheim cannon. It is about what they all seem to be about - love and art. These two recurring themes must be why Sondheim speaks so deeply to me. It was written in the middle of his career, with George Furth, who also wrote the book to Company. Indeed there are certain similarities. Frank has to have the same sort of charismatic draw that Bobby does.

I think this musical must feel very different to each viewer, depending on how old he or she is. At my age, I found it incredibly touching, and depressing. As time runs backwards you watch all the mistakes the characters made in their lives, and then you see what they started out as - full of dreams and hope, determined to make a difference. In one scene Frank says something along the lines of, "I'm so young. I've got so much ahead of me. But then sometimes I think, I'm 25. That's a quarter of a century. I have to get moving." I thought, "Oh my god. Furth is READING MY MIND."

At the end of the show, when you see the characters in their youth, it becomes unbearable. They are so like me, and their lives all turned into shit. What if the same thing happens to me?I imagine it must be different watching the show at the age of 40 or 50 where you already know what has happened to you.

Onto the production: The set was an austere white circular platform. On it was a piano, and large white spiraling staircase (the perils of moving up in the world), and a gigantic white door. The set served as a fantastic backing to the multitude of times and locations. Also it allowed the costume designer (Robert Perdziola) to use lots of colors, which he did to great effect. The first act costumes were a magnification or a more extreme version of the act two costumes.

I saw the understudy (James Gardiner) as Franklin Shepard. He was good and likable, but was a little young for the part and didn't have the level of charisma that the part requires. So I felt Erik Liberman as Charley and Tracy Lynn Olivera as Mary were better. I've seen other reviews praise Will Gartshore in the part of Franklin and say that he was stronger than the other two. Liberman captures well the sort of nerdy artist trying to accomplish something, and Olivera has fun as the sassy sarcastic Mary.

3 stars.


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