Friday, March 9, 2012

“Merrily We Roll Along”: Finally, it works in a Must-See

The Cast with Dexter at the Marx Theatre*

      John Doyle directs Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Playhouse in a production that mines and polishes the jeweled potential that critics have claimed for this work, but which audiences haven’t always seen.  Until now, that is.  As in his great production of Company (2006), Doyle strips the show to its basics – the music performed by actor-musicians in a strong ensemble
around an ambivalent principal character.  The biggest difference is that Doyle’s Company was updated from 1970 to a contemporary, minimalist setting, whereas Merrily moves backward in time from 1976 to 1957 and looks both minimalist – it’s almost completely in variations of blue – and suggestive of the various decades through costume, scenic details, and the body language and energy of the actors.  Characters continually stand in pools of light as if in close-up and communicate to each other, but averting their gaze.  It’s a commercial Broadway musical that looks and feels like a European art movie.
     Malcolm Gets, who co-starred on TV’s Caroline in the City in the late ‘90s, is a strong anchor for the production in the main role of Franklin Shepard, who is a sellout Hollywood producer that was an idealistic theatre composer.  He plays piano, which underscores continually that he is composing the music he’s singing, and his deep purple velvet jacket is a gorgeous symbol for his pride, which is his undoing.  It really is a tragedy, but because it plays in reverse, it feels like an idealistic romance.  Daniel Jenkins, the original Huck in Big River – believe it or not, is touching, funny, and the conscience of the show as Charley Kringas, Franklin’s best friend, who succeeds on his own terms.  Becky Ann Baker plays Mary Flynn, the third member of the best friends, who pines for Franklin.  I really liked her as the mother on Freaks and Geeks, but she came across like Peggy Cass as Gooch in Auntie Mame and her voice was the weakest.  

     Leenya Rideout as Gussie Carnegie fascinates as the movie star second wife, who was once a nice little New York Jewish working girl secretary.  Not only is she a lovely singer, without overdoing it and that’s noteworthy nowadays, but she is also a gifted player of a variety of string instruments.  I remembered her from Company, where she played the prim, but willing to party, Jenny.  She was good in that production; she’s great here without ever stealing focus.  Matt Castle, Fred Rose, and Bruce Sabath were in Company as well and know exactly how to act, sing, and move while carrying and playing their instruments. 

     Doyle has put together his own company, primarily through the designers Scott Pask (sets), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes), Jane Cox (lights), Dan Moses Schreier (sound), and Mary-Mitchell Campbell (orchestrator).  Campbell’s re-thinking of the music from a full theatre orchestra to a smaller group of actors that may only be proficient in a single instrument is both intimate and deep.  Those instruments represent the souls of the actors in their performances. 

     America’s greatest living theatre composer (or theatre artist for that matter) being served by the most incisive interpreter of noted existing works is cause for celebration and pretty much mandatory attendance.  I hope this production travels because it’s important.

*Original photo by Sandy Underwood

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