Nancy Sasso Janis
‘Merrily We Roll Along’ at Sharon Playhouse has a lot of reasons to like it. Stephen Sondheim music and lyrics are always challenging but worth the attention necessary to follow them. Jason Tam of ‘If/Then’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Broadway in the leading role of Franklin Shepard. The return of Lauren Marcus who I had loved in the role of Sonia in ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ and Sarah Cline who was an amazing Fantine in ‘Les Miserables.’ Not to mention the high level of quality of most productions at the summer theater in the upper left hand corner of the state.
However….there was the fact that the trajectory of the action is backwards. Not just for half the characters, as in ‘The Last Five Years,’ but the entire musical literally begins in 1976 and ends in 1957. I worried that the teen and I would get lost somewhere in the middle.
Didn’t happen. Even when I read the synopsis online the next day, I realized we had only missed one small detail in the action that wasn’t all that important. I loved the music which reminded me a little bit of tunes from ‘Company,’ which coincidentally I had on my calendar for the following evening. I loved that the amazing Sharon orchestra sat on stage with their director Eric Kang conducting at his keyboard with his back to them. I would steal a glance at this master at work every song or so. The strong cast competed for attention and succeeded in this unique and powerful piece that has what director John Simpkins in his curtain speech called a “storied past.”
It is the story of the friendship of three friends involved in show business with romantic issues thrown in for good measure. The book was written by George Furth which is based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The show opens in 1976 in Bel Air California before it heads back in time in the lives of three main characters.
Mr. Tam was the talented and tortured composer Franklin Shepherd and turned in a strong performance vocally and in his acting. A.J. Shively (‘La Cage’ on Broadway) was easy to like as the lyricist Charles Kringas. Ms. Marcus just glowed as the third member of this trio of “Old Friends,” the writer who spends most of her time trying to smooth things out.
Ms. Cline played the aptly (re)named Gussie Carnegie and the fact that she was hard to like was a tribute to her fine acting ability. Emma Davis sang beautifully as Frank’s first wife Beth and David Fanning was perfectly cast as producer Joe Josephson.
Ten up and coming college actors make up the collegiate company that spend their summer in Sharon and all have named roles in this production. Each one of these talented performers sang the challenging score so well and danced beautifully. However, in this particular show their youthful appearance didn’t quite fit their characters. They were almost believable at the “movers and shapers” in the industry, but two actors cast as Beth’s parents looked younger than their daughter despite wardrobe changes but no wigs. Frank Jr. was played well by fourth grade student Evan Fine, who at his young age is a Sharon Playhouse veteran.
I will listen again to the Sondheim music that I had not heard before. The orchestra under the direction of Mr. Kang played it extremely well and almost became a living part of the simple scenery designed by Brian Prather as the actors interacted around them. Costumes designed by Michelle Eden Humphrey were quite lavish and fit the periods nicely. Jennifer Werner choreographed the dance numbers and Mr. Simpkins aptly directed one of his favorite pieces.
Unfortunately, this run only included seven performances at the Sharon Playhouse and closes on July 19. It was well-worth the drive to the corner of Connecticut to see a seldom produced musical with music written by a master.