Friday, February 17, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along: Heartbreaking Old Friends

The much anticipated revival of Merrily We Roll Along is currently playing at City Center in the Encores! series.  In a more-than-a-concert format, the famous Sondheim flop delivers a bittersweet story of friends and creative partners who compromise and lose their way and their friendship as they age.  Told in reverse chronological order, we see the fractured relationships first and then peel back the years to see what they were like in their younger, more idealistic years.

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
Colin Donnell stars as Franklin Shepard the composer turned movie producer who screws up his life with women and compromise ending up focused on the money and the fame.  His collaborator, Charley Kringas (Lin-Manual Miranda) is more artistically pure and cannot take Frank's compromises any longer ending their long friendship and collaboration.  Always trying to keep the trio together is Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger) a writer who has long been in love with Frank but never reveals her feelings. 

My impression of this work is that it has  wonderful lyrics and a beautiful score but the book remains problematic.  I was left wondering about Charley and Mary.  Wanting to know more about them.  As written, and perhaps as played here as well, they are only symbols and foils for Frank.  It is Frank's story.

One of the long-standing complaints about this work (which has been re-worked significantly since it's Broadway debut in 1981) is that Frank is an unsympathetic character at the beginning and it is challenging for the audience to go on the journey when everyone starts out so unlikeable.  Casting Donnell goes a long way to fixing this problem.

I was a fan of Donnell's from his work in Anything Goes.  But I was unprepared for the really remarkable performance here in Merrily.  There is no question his voice is beautiful and he gets to sing some incredible songs in this show.  It is a testament to his musical theater skills that he makes it all look so effortless.  But it's Sondheim so you know none of it is.  It is really his acting choices in this show that were the revelation.  I am indebted to @Scamandalous who told me to watch Colin Donnell during "Franklin Shepard Inc." and not Lin-Manual Miranda who is singing because of Donnell's great reaction (I was transfixed by Miranda the first time I saw the show so I took Amanda's advice on my second viewing).  Donnell has the most heart-breaking, subtle reaction shot to Lin's song. One tear falls from his eye as the song comes to a close.  There were several moments in the show where he gives so much to his character through his reactions to others.  Yes, he can sing certain notes and just hearing them makes me cry but his acting is top-notch.  It is a subtle performance and may be easily missed in a production where people are often trying to keep up with the story but people need to stand up and take notice.  Cast this man in your straight plays and musicals or else we'll lose him to TV forever.

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
Lin-Manual Miranda (who I had not seen perform before except his guest appearance in Gavin Creel's American Songbook concert) brought a lot of pain and pathos to Charley.  On my first viewing of the show, I quickly teared up during his rendition of "Franklin Shepard Inc."  His voice is not as strong as the rest of the cast but his performance was surprisingly powerful to me.  I did not find his character as strident as others thought him.  "Franklin Shepard Inc." was full of love.  Miranda's interpretation might be big (and I never saw Raul Esparza's Charley so I cannot compare them) but there were moments where you could see his heart break for the loss of his friend.

Keenan-Bolger was a mixed bag for me.  I know a lot of people love her performance.  I thought she was not acerbic enough to be drunk older, Mary, but was more convincing as the youngest, darling Mary.  I struggled with her pixie voice and demeanor.  Not sure if it was the staging, the wigs, or the warble in her throat during some of the performance, but I was not emotionally engaged by her rendition of Mary.  Mary's got some great lines but sass and bitterness don't seem to be Keenan-Bolger's strong suit. 

I saw Elizabeth Stanley in Company but frankly I do not remember her (hating the John Doyle production so much).  But here she tears up the stage and you cannot forget her.  Elizabeth Stanley did a great job as Gussie Carnegie the ambitious stage actress climbing the showbiz ladder and gaining and shedding husbands as she goes.  She manages to play Gussie in her wide range of incarnations from an aging starlet, to a big brassy Broadway star, to a loud and bossy New York hostess on her way up, and a secretary with dreams.  Each scene and each iteration of the character was real and vivid.  Eventually Gussie causes the first major fracture in the friendship between Mary, Frank and Charley.  Stanley plays her selfishness, self-absorption and seduction well.

I also think Betsy Wolfe deserves some praise.  She has the thankless task of playing Frank's first wife Beth.  She did a great job with "Not a Day Goes By" and she's delightfully playful in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack."

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
With wigs, costume changes, and many projections to show the passage of time, the change in the characters and their meteoric rise in reverse, this "concert" staging was much more than actors standing around on book reading and singing.  It helps tell this particularly confusing story and I was grateful for the structure.  Having listened to the original 1981 cast album and read a bit of Finishing the Hat, I still felt I needed to see the show to understand everything and that was certainly true. 

There were a few aspects of the staging that I found awkward.  From the orchestra, it was hard to see the projections behind the cast when they were on stage.  The "Musical Husbands" dance number felt out of place.  I was disappointed in the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By."  Mary is oddly lit, awkwardly seated and I felt like the emotional beat to that scene was off.

But it is a pleasure to hear these songs and be given the opportunity to see this show.  I doubt a Broadway transfer will emerge but I am grateful to have the chance to see a largely fantastic cast breathe life into this troubled show. 

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