Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
"How did you get to be here?"
It's the overarching question posed both to a character named Franklin Shepard as well as to the musical itself tasked to tell his journey.
35 years after its infamously troubled Broadway debut—and spending just about as much time amassing a cult following for it in the process—the complex stage musical 'MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG' has certainly been enjoying a much-deserved renaissance lately.
The Harold Prince-directed original production—featuring a book by George Furth that's based on the similarly-titled play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart—was initially dismissed by critics and audiences despite the presence of a gorgeously melodic songbook of now-classic Stephen Sondheim tunes. Today, however, the once perplexing show continues to gain fans all over the world, as more and more theaters attempt to remount the rarely-produced musical that, at its core, has so much theatrical potential.
Between the touching new behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of the original 1981 Broadway production "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened" (directed by one of the musical's original stars Lonny Price) and, now, a brand new, exquisitely-rendered Los Angeles revival—which continues at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through December 18—the musical is gaining a foothold on a more appreciative, more savvy 21st Century audience that can see its layers of thematic greatness beyond its surface flaws.
The man responsible for this beautiful and deeply thoughtful new So. Cal. production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is actor Michael Arden, a longtime Broadway vet whose last directorial effort was the groundbreaking, Tony Award-nominated Deaf West production of SPRING AWAKENING that moved from a small black box theater in downtown L.A. to the posh digs of The Wallis in Beverly Hills before its eventual limited-run transfer to Broadway last year (Arden, appropriately enough, currently serves as The Wallis' Artist-in-Residence).
That same creative spark and affectionate care for the material he applied to SPRING AWAKENING is certainly present in this enjoyable new production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, which for me personally stands as the most visionary version (and therefore my favorite version) of this often polarizing show.
And along with the stellar work of lighting designer Travis Hagenbuch (who thoughtfully guided the audience to decipher what is of utmost importance in any given scene) and musical director Adam Wachter and musical supervisor/conductor Matt Gould (who filled the theater with the richness of Sondheim's sublime sounds), this MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is a creative marvel.
Incorporating a refreshed, more dynamic staging, Arden has also taken on some of the more confusing and, at times, frustrating parts of an otherwise intriguing musical and turned them into engaging, contextually-rich vignettes filled with dramatic tension, self-reflection, and emotional heft. In his hands, the production improves on many of the original's narrative and character hurdles, resulting in what I predict will cause many to have an entirely new appreciation for what truly is an under-appreciated gem of a show. While it's not perfect, Arden's version certainly comes close.
And therein lies Arden's biggest challenge, which has always been a point of contention in past productions: to take characters introduced at their lowest, most detestable point in their lives and somehow make them likable enough for an audience invest in them, as the musical embarks on a backwards-in-time trajectory (the musical begins in 1976 then continues backwards to 1957). This lovely new production, I feel, successfully accomplishes that, easily earning our empathy as we witness the implosion of a close, family-like friendship circle that initially began with such high hopes and idealism (which, sadly, is seen at the very end of the show).
Right from the opening rise of the curtain, the production already feels incredibly special.
From the depths of who-knows-where, Franklin Shepard (Aaaron Lazar, in a superb star turn) climbs up center stage surrounded by the ensemble, all somber as if they had gone through a devastating tragedy. To answer the musical's ultimate question (again, "HOW did we get to be HERE?") the musical shifts to a party where we find wealthy (and seemingly happy) Franklin, a successful Hollywood producer. Everyone's there to celebrate his latest cinematic success, including one of Franklin's longtime best friends, critic Mary Flynn (a terrific Donna Vivino), who is clearly intoxicated.
Mary is upset at her old friend not only for missing his own son's graduation, but for reveling amongst a pretentious lot that value artifice and box office gold. Even his current film is a piece of popcorn fluff, far removed from the more meaningful work he used to do in the New York theater.
Angrily aided with liquid courage, a disgusted Mary insults Franklin and his gathered cadre of sycophants, which triggers a series of other awful incidents that include the end of his current marriage to Broadway star Gussie (the amazing Saycon Sengbloh) after she admits knowledge of Franklin's affair with the young star of his hit film.
It is then when Franklin realizes that the price he has paid for his fame and success was gained at the expense of losing all his close friends and family that encircled him in the beginning of his career. Is all of THIS worth it when all is said and done?
From there, the musical flashes backward a few years at a time—with helpful choruses of the year the scene is taking place sung by the ensemble while also flashed like bright theater marquees above the action. The story told in reverse centers mostly on the bitter and quite heartbreaking separation between Franklin and his former best friend and artistic collaborator Charley Kringas, played with searing emotional depth by Wayne Brady, in a role that should earn him plenty of awards and accolades very soon.
Right from the start, particularly in a terrific melt-down scene that has Charley ranting during an awkward live TV interview segment, the audience sort of "sides" with Charley, who has finally reached an understandable breaking point. We see Charley, in contrast, as the person whose entire being is guided by a moral conscience and a sense of loyalty and fairness. Most significantly, Charley believes in the long-term merits of artistic integrity over commercial payoffs. His path, unlike Franklin, may not have him in a palatial mansion in Hollywood in the end, but he does earn a Pulitzer Prize and an intact family as a nice consolation prize.
Caught between the two men's burgeoning feud is Mary, once a promising author herself who later reinvents herself as a theater critic (not that there's anything wrong, ahem, with that). Judging by her constant need to be wasted in the beginning of the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, she has relied heavily on alcohol to ease her pain of life and her (still) unrequited love for Franklin (everyone seems to be keenly aware of this latter fact which makes it even sadder to see).
As we learn as the musical rolls along, it becomes progressively clearer that Franklin's path was not guided by the hopeful, artistically-inspired person that he was when he first meets Charley and Mary some 20+ years before on a fateful rooftop viewing session to watch Sputnik fly over the skies of New York City. Rather, he seems to be hell-bent on achieving an exponential status-improvement, giving into temptation and stomping on his so called "Old Friends" to get his way. It's a heavy-handed lesson to see unfold for the character, who we know going in is already trapped in his current state and can only look back at how he got his life oh so very wrong.
And though this musical allows some sympathy for Franklin, he still doesn't quite get forgiven for his behavior easily. Rather, he triggers pity as he is seen abandoned by those important to him.
The true testament of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, of course, is knowing what eventually happens to the characters ahead of time and seeing the different spots in the narrative that, in hindsight, are the root causes for future events we already experienced. For Franklin, it is seeing a progression in his less-than-ideal behavior, including going from one wife, Beth (the lovely voiced Whitney Bashor), who championed her husband's artistic rise, then cheating on her with (and then later marrying) Gussie, whom he met while still married to Frank's producer partner Joe (Amir Talai). It's clear Gussie is using him as much as Franklin is using her to get ahead. And, to no one's surprise, Franklin eventually cheats on Gussie, too.
So how does this new production manage to make us not hate Franklin as much as previous productions have? Well, besides Lazar's charismatic performance, Arden's staging in various points of the musical allows for us to get constant visually-interpreted reminders that Franklin seems to be guilt-haunted by his choices even though he wholeheartedly goes through with them anyway. It's like watching a drug addict fail over and over again when you dangle his vices in front of him. It's not a forgivable excuse by any means, sure, but it certainly helps us empathize with him more.
Knowing emotions have a raw tendency, Arden brilliantly finds a way to keep everything out in the open, a sort of added transparency that is found throughout his engaging reboot. With that in mind, Arden stages the musical by having characters (and the actors embodying them) be present for most of the show. On both sides of the stage are individual dressing-room like stations, complete with lighted mirrors, wig stands, make-up, and nearby racks of vintage costumes designed by Dane Laffrey, who is also responsible for the musical's impressive scenic designs.
As characters exit scenes or help move props or furniture away, actors change into different costumes and make-up at various points of the production in full view of the audience at these stations, reiterating the idea that life happens and moves on around us, even if certain events aren't the main focus.
Sometimes, these same actors (still in character) quietly sit and observe the events on stage after changing for their next entrances from the sides of the stage, much like omniscient bystanders observing flashbacks happening in front of them. Everyone can see what is happening (and why) except for Franklin, who is only able to objectively "observe" in much fewer moments throughout the musical than what is afforded others in the ensemble.
The idea of showing actors leaving just slightly to the side of the stage to change outfits (or even, at times, as completely different characters) also hammers home the idea that we are all essentially acting out roles in front of one another to get what we want, to a certain extent, in certain key moments. We show people what they want to see, but sometimes those who know you best (and who have known you for a long time) can see everything, flaws and all.
Beautifully integrated into the proceedings are three younger actors who weave in and out of the scenes via lyrically poetic choreography by Eamon Foley. The three dancers represent ghosts of the more hopeful, wide-eyed younger selves of Mary (Jennifer Foster), Franklin (Max Chucker) and Charley (Doran Butler). Not only do they add another storytelling layer to the heartbreaking narrative, they also serve as a visual reminder that despite the realities of adulthood, the ideals and hopes of our younger selves shouldn't necessarily be silenced altogether and that they are somewhere swimming about as reverberating echoes nagging us not to squelch these inner voices.
I'm not afraid to admit that it took me about three scenes in to realize who these figures represented, but when it did occur to me, I literally felt goosebumps. To realize that Franklin is constantly haunted by these three figures gives his present state and this new production some extra needed gravitas. They are a constant reminder for the audience that these jaded adult characters were once full of wonder about the world ahead and are only forced to change course once other people entered the picture (as is, well, life). Personal life choices not only affect the person itself, but also the people closest to that person.
When Vivino finally allows their younger selves to speak their actual words at the end of the musical (which, chronologically, is the beginning), it is poignant, heartbreaking, and bittersweet.
The presence of these young "ghosts"—along with Arden's carefully choreographed organized chaos of periphery characters entering and exiting each and every lively scene—this MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG feels like the definitive production of the musical everyone needs to see. Even better? The production manages to explain its themes and machinations without hitting you over the head, something I have not seen in previous productions.
And I cannot sing the praises of this cast enough. Vivino's voice is spectacular. Sengbloh's power vocals are delightfully divalicious. Bashor's "Not A Day Goes By" nearly broke my heart. Lazar is a superb leading man with a stunning singing voice. And Brady, much more readily known as a comical actor is a true revelation here in a more dramatic turn as the spurned, disappointed pal. His Act 1 rapid-fire rant against his ex-friend/ex-partner "Franklin Shepard Inc." is a brilliant highlight while his Act 2 solo "Good Thing Going" is swathed in raw vulnerability. I was lucky enough to catch his return performance on opening weekend after missing the opening night performance due to an injury. Well, he was definitely in fine form.
Perhaps because he is an actor himself, Arden has gloriously extracted such vivid characterizations out of a truly harmonious acting ensemble in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (additional kudos to the incredible ensemble of triple threats!)
And if you're already a fan of the Sondheim score, then you will definitely enjoy the musical and its gorgeous melodies now that they're paired with pleasing performances and a staging that truly enhances the show. Arden has skillfully and beautifully deconstructed the ripple effect of the many choices one character makes—and it is incredibly intriguing to behold.
So how did we get to here? Simple… by aligning the talents of a thoughtful visionary director with a musical in desperate need of salvation, just like its main character. The results are extraordinary—so much so that I hope this staging gets adopted by future productions.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Main top photo by Dan Steinberg. Inset photos by Kevin Parry. All photos courtesy of The Wallis.
Performances of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG continue at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through December 18, 2016. For tickets or for more information, please go to thewallis.org.