‘Merrily’ rolls backward through time

By
Monday, March 19, 2007

Correction appended.

In one of the most entertaining Brown productions of the season, director Curt Columbus and conductor Paul Phillips, senior lecturer in music, ably brought Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical “Merrily We Roll Along” to a crowded Leeds Theater March 9.

In a surprising twist, the musical meta-critically describes itself by stating, “It’s fun, it’s opulent, it’s Broadway.” These words issue forth from Gussie Carnegie (Aja Nisenson ’07), a Broadway siren, well-schooled in the alluring, but ultimately empty materialism of success. With the wink and smirk of this deconstructive self-criticism, Sondheim derides his “musical” as a frivolous and materialistic devaluation of art.

Yet Sondheim criticizes himself too harshly. Though “Merrily” is certainly a “fun” and diverting Broadway musical, it also importantly speaks to the tension between art and its commoditization. Indeed, Sondheim critiques cultural forces that corrupt artists as well as the misguided choices artists make to “merrily roll along” in the empty pursuit of commercial success.

For the characters of Sondheim’s musical, the progression of commercial success involves a regression from the optimism and hope of youth to the cynicism and despair of maturity.

The play begins in 1976 at a Hollywood party where the audience first learns of the “old friendship” between Frank Shepard (Federico Rodriguez ’09), Charley Kringas (Jed Resnick ’07) and Mary Flynn (Monica Willey ’07).

The close friends were once powerfully linked by the mantra “Here’s to us, who’s like us, damn few.” However, as they have aged, this mantra becomes a poignant reminder of their failed expectations and friendship.

Frank, who showed great promise as a composer in his youth, is a shallow Hollywood producer. Mary, the writer who was the first of the trio to achieve success, is a stumbling alcoholic living in the past. Only Charley, the intellectual with lofty ideals about art, is a thriving and important playwright.

To understand the present circumstances of each character, the play rolls backwards in time from 1976 to 1957 and shifts from Los Angeles to New York. The reverse progression of time illustrates the choices each character makes that define their lives and ultimately end their friendship.

Frank cheats on his wife Beth (Jaime Rosenstein ’10) with Nisenson’s Gussie, a rising young starlet in the materialistic pursuit of commercial artistic success. The frustration of Mary’s unrequited love for Frank and her obsessive behavior – too much drink, too much food and too much Frank – lead the once promising writer to become a theater critic, a commentary on the turn from artistic creation to criticism. Though Charley is ostensibly a success, he chooses a life of intellectual pride that ultimately lacks compassion for the weaknesses of his friends.

The leads – Rodriguez, Resnick and Willey – made the difficult task of singing and acting look easy in a medium where it is often difficult to strike the right balance between strong singing and convincing acting. Their actions moved fluidly, and their voices in song and speech were emotively effective.

Particularly impressive in corresponding meaning and tempo was the pairing of the pieces “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Old Friends.” With lyrics that respectively express the fast and fractured and the smooth and whole, these songs powerfully evoked the feelings that lead to the dissolution and foundation of friendship. The presto and precision of Resnick’s rendering of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” conveyed Charley’s frustration with Frank’s shallow materialism. The voices of Resnick, Willey and Rodriguez each resonated with natural mellifluousness in their joint rendition of “Old Friends.”

Most astonishing in vocal range was Rosenstein’s Beth, who shined in both “Not a Day Goes By” and the humorous political number “Bobby, Jackie and Jack” – one of the most delightful moments in the play. With politically biting lyrics and charming acting, the number evoked the idealistic foundation of Charley and Frank’s former collaboration as lyricist and songwriter as well as the adoration Beth and Frank had for each other.

The quickly changing costumes (creations of Frances Romasco, costume design assistant for the Department of Theater, Speech and Dance) expressed the passage of time but sometimes served as a comedic counterpoint to the thematic exposition of disillusionment – polyester pants and platform shoes will amuse a modern audience, after all.

The sets designed by the University’s Scenic Designer Michael McGarty were effective, but it was the music that most ably framed the performances in the play. Through the vibrancy of beat and the evocation of melody, conductor Phillips musically set a mood for the performance. His rendition of the score conveyed the emotional content of the play even when there were dramatic gaps in the acting.

In true Broadway fashion, Sondheim’s musical ends with stirring optimism – the song “Our Time” effectively juxtaposes the bitterness of age against the hope of youth. No one can change the past, but nonetheless “Merrily We Roll Along,” “moving forward and backward” in life.

An article in Friday’s Herald (” ‘Merrily’ rolls backward through time, March 16) incorrectly identified the name of the song “Bobby, Jackie and Jack” in the performance of “Merrily We Roll Along.” That same article also reported that the performances began at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Leeds Theatre. In fact, they began at 8 p.m. in Stuart Theatre.