Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Merrily We Roll Along
As troubled as the show is, when a production has a gifted cast and a talented director who come together to successfully tackle the challenges, it can be a thing of pure beauty. Last week, State of the Art Productions presented a moving and beautiful production of this rarely produced musical in a limited three-performance run. The fact that the cast and director are all in their late teens and early 20s makes this the first production of six I've seen over the past 25 years that's close to what Sondheim, Furth, and original producer and director Hal Prince presented in the original Broadway production, which was also had a cast of young adults.
Merrily We Roll Along focuses on a trio of good friends: songwriting collaborators Frank and Charley, and their best girl pal Mary, a writer. When we first meet them they are miserable and extremely unhappy, and Frank and Charley aren't speaking. Over the course of the show, as we travel back in time, we come to understand why they are the way they are and we see what events fractured their relationships. The show ends with the trio's first meeting, at the start of their young adult lives when they are optimistic and hopeful for the future.
Unsympathetic characters (when we first meet them) and a plot that goes back in time are two reasons the show is considered to be troubled. However, having now seen several productions, I've come to realize the issue isn't that it's a difficult show or one that's hard to understand–it's that audiences aren't used to having to pay as close attention as they have to for a show like this.
In the intimate Spotlight Youth Theatre venue, director Finnegan Clisham staged the action close to the lip of the stage so the audience was almost like a fly on the wall of the intimate interactions among the characters, which pulled us into the show and helped us identify more closely with the characters. Through strong directorial decisions, Clisham also made us see that, even though the characters are miserable in the first few scenes of the show, they had a sense of remorse or hope underneath their sad exteriors, and we could latch on to them immediately–something I've not seen in other productions of the show. The youthfulness of the cast gave the ending a huge shot of raw emotion that I had not experienced before; having older actors doesn't pack as much of an emotional wallop as those who could have the same hopeful aspirations that Frank, Charley, and Mary sing about. Though some think the book or score might be the reason the show is troubled, I think Furth's book beautifully gives you just the information you need to understand the characters, and Sondheim's score has plenty of reprises and musical motifs that are repeated and combined into other songs to flesh out the inner feelings and beliefs of the characters.
This production featured a trio of talented actors–Dean Kelldorf, Josh Pike, and Elaine Pratt–who played Frank, Charley, and Mary, plus another equally talented trio–Ryenne Morgan, Danielle Yokley, and Alec Pursell–who portrayed Beth, Gussie, and Joe, three individuals who come into the lives of the main characters. All six delivered wonderful performances, some of the best I've seen for these characters. As Frank, Kelldorf showed the right balance between being cocky and being unsure of himself at times, Pike portrayed Charley as lovable yet full of hurt, and Pratt was simply exceptional as Mary. Morgan, Yokley, and Pursell also contributed solid portrayals and the small ensemble played multiple parts with ease. While clearly all six are wonderful as the idealistic younger versions of their characters, they also do a very good job in portraying the older, harsh and hardened versions that we meet at the start of the show. The members of the ensemble were equally as good playing several smaller supporting roles, including Beths parents and a TV reporter.
Director Clisham made many wise directorial decisions throughout, including having his actors flesh out the feelings and responsibilities of the trio through expressions and gestures that were more refined and clear than in other productions I've seen. In the first few scenes, we saw Kelldorf's sad but hopeful eyes and heard Pratt's biting but loving line delivery, which exposed that underneath their bitter exteriors are individuals who understand why they are the people they've become and that, even though they know they are responsible for their own actions they still have hope that things could get better. All six of the leads were wonderful and each made specific acting choices that allowed them to fully embody their characters with nuance and depth. They also all had strong and rich singing voices that brought out the emotion in Sondheim's poignant lyrics under Jonah Fried's astute music direction.
While there really wasn't much of a set, with a Manhattan skyline painted on the back wall of the theatre and a few chairs, a piano, and some movable desks moved around to create the various settings in the show, the production team still managed to do a fairly good job in creating the feeling of the space and location for each of the scenes. The simplicity of the creative elements also allowed the focus to be solely on the relationships of the main trio of friends and the other characters that come into their lives. Fried's choreography was fine, but also never truly period specific.
Merrily We Roll Along is a show that very few theatres take on and it's easy to see why, since it wasn't successful on Broadway, is considered to be a problem show, has characters that are harsh and insensitive when we first meet them, and has a score that a lot of theatregoers might not be familiar with. However, seeing young people play these roles, and play them as well as this cast did, truly got at the meaning of the show, and Clisham's direction and the cast's nuanced performances helped clarify the characters, which also helped clear up some of the problems I've had with past productions. Clearly, Hal Prince had a great idea to cast young actors in the original Broadway production, as they are around the same ages the main characters are at the end of the show–just starting out their lives with the same ideas and dreams we hear and see in the show. State of the Art Productions' Merrily We Roll Along was wonderful and emotionally moving; it got a rousing standing ovation at the performance I attended and was something the young cast and creative team should be truly proud of.
Merrily We Roll Along played August 5-6, 2022, at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Peoria. This is State of the Art Productions' second production, after presenting Assassins last summer with many of the same cast members. While they don't currently have any upcoming productions planned, you can follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/StateoftheArtProductions.
Director/Costumes/Lighting: Finnegan Clisham
Dean Kelldorf as Franklin Shepard