In 1981, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince collaborated with writer George Furth for a new musical based on a 1934 play, Merrily We Roll Along. The show was to be the latest in a string of impressive productions from the pair, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and more. As chronicled in the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, things did not turn out well. The production was doomed from the start, as everything from the structure to the casting to the book didn’t work. Even the music, by our greatest living composer/lyricist, left something to be desired. The whole show was panned, and it only ran for 16 performances; it also marked the end of the Sondheim/Prince partnership for more than 20 years.
But the world will not let a Sondheim musical fade into oblivion, and just over a decade after it first premiered, he and Furth re-worked and-relaunched it in a production that, its weaknesses notwithstanding, remains a mainstay in the modern American musical theater canon. This month, Porchlight Music Theater presents the show as part of their latest season; it runs at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through March 11.
Merrily We Roll Along is the story of three good friends (“Who’s like us? Damn few!”) and their journey from struggling artists to celebrities from 1957 to 1976; to keep things interesting, the whole adventure is told in reverse. Porchlight’s version, directed by Artistic Director Michael Weber, opens more recently than that, as we open on an aged Frank Shepard at center stage in a wheelchair; the projection on a wall upstage confirms it’s 2018, but the clock quickly turns back to 1976. Frank, now a successful film producer after abandoning his stage work with writing partner Charley Kringas, hosts a swank party at his Hollywood home, where the third in their creative trio, Mary Flynn, drinks herself into oblivion and makes quite a scene.
As the show progresses, we watch Frank (Jim DeSelm), Mary (Neala Barron) and Charley (Matt Crowle) get younger and younger, their complicated, messy history ever more apparent. She’s in love with him but will never say so; he’s cheating on her and the divorce is gonna be messy; he’s committed to his art, but could be persuaded by a paycheck. The whole thing moves at a clip, with a chorus of extras transporting us from one year to the one before, changing the scenery and setting the mood as they go. Built out as a foyer of sorts, with sets of doors on all three sides of the stage, clever projections turn the space into whatever room the production calls for: now it’s a courthouse; now it’s a rooftop; now it’s a TV studio, and on and on.
Far be it from me to critique Sondheim; I couldn’t even if I wanted to (which I don’t), I’m too big a fan. So instead, I’ll focus on this iteration of his and Furth’s creation, a show that includes such gems as “Old Friends,” “Good Thing Going,” and “Our Time.” Under Weber’s direction, Porchlight presents a boisterous, dynamic take on a poignant story of friendship, success and the passage of time. As one who wasn’t alive until the year after the original production premiered, let alone during the era in which it’s set, Merrily We Roll Along remains relevant and timely in the 21st century, exploring—like so many Sondheim productions do—the human experience, the relationships that shape us and the fumbles and triumphs along the way.
The lead trio, DeSelm, Crowle and Barron, have a chemistry that can’t be faked (or if it is, they’ve done a damn good job of it), and their shifting dynamic from one scene to the next never feels forced. Each gets their moments to shine: DeSelm croons “Growing Up” in a quiet moment in Act 1; Barron charges through “Now You Know” with ferocity and conviction; and Crowle takes the cake with a raucous “Frank Shepard, Inc.” that sees him nearly burst with frenetic energy (and all while seated, too!). Bolstered by Keely Vasquez (Gussie Carnegie), Aja Wiltshire (Beth) and David Fiorello (Joe Josephson), the ensemble makes joyous use of the stage, from conversations in the corners to choreography that sees the troupe leaping from one end to the other.
It’s a welcome juxtaposition to a quite dark show, really, evident in the themes lurking below Sondheim’s melodious tunes and Furth’s razor’s-edge dialogue. There’s betrayal and selling-out. There’s materialism and unrequited love. There’s insecurity and botched priorities, infidelity and missed opportunities. It’s heavy stuff, to be sure, served up with a spoonful of sugar.
Aside from the ill-fitting, poorly styled wig Barron is saddled with for most of the show as dowdy Mary (an over-correction on the costume department’s part; one can be “plain” without being a caricature), the whole cast is decked out in impressive period looks, right down to the oversized sunglasses on their faces. Set pieces do well to keep up, too; no fewer than three different pianos make an appearance, as we watch these artists develop their craft, and even the retro microphones during a TV appearance are charmingly of the era.
In the long list of masterpieces Stephen Sondheim has given us, Merrily We Roll Along will likely never be known as his best (because that’s Company, obviously). But Porchlight’s production does the work good, infusing the show with a wit and energy that will have you humming along by curtain call.
Merrily We Roll Along has been extended and runs through March 17 at Porchlight Music Theater at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. More information and tickets are available online here.