Thursday, February 01, 2018

Narrative Challenges Remain, but 'Merrily We Roll Along' Largely Delights, From End to Beginning -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Merrily We Roll Along
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Ruth Page Center, Chicago
Thru March 11

The determination of (and delineation among) ratings on my @@@@@ scale is always rather unscientific, imprecise and, in the grand scheme of things, not all that significant.

But the decision whether to award a show @@@@ or @@@@1/2 typically poses my toughest dilemma.

In the case of theater, my rating represents my qualitative perception and acute enjoyment of a given production, intangibly blurred with the quality of the material itself.

I generally think of a @@@@ show as one I greatly liked and was quite happy to have seen, but--perhaps due to some flaws, qualms, etc., or just not being blown away--not one that I would vehemently insist that others, even with tastes & inclinations akin to mine, rush out or pony up to attend.

Whereas @@@@@, and a bit less so @@@@1/2, roughly means that I emphatically think people, especially with proclivities like mine, should make a point of seeing it.

What's tricky in reviewing Porchlight Music Theatre's new production of Merrily We Roll Along is that I think both things--and more--are true.

The show's music & lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, whom I consider a genius and the greatest ever at his craft.

Every time I see one of his shows--including this one--I am newly reminded of the brilliant, typically universal insights in his lyrics, and how important he & his work have been in my life.

Many Sondheim acolytes assuredly feel something similar, and as Merrily We Roll Along is rarely staged in the Chicago area, fans should see this fine production just because they can. (The only other time I saw the show was a 2011 production in Highland Park featuring Jessie Mueller, now a Tony-winning Broadway star.)

But the initial Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along somewhat famously flopped--closing after just 16 official performances--and though it was subsequently modified and improved, the narrative remains challenging based on a 1994 edition which Porchlight's production follows.

Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber, who directs this production, makes a shrewd choice in initially setting the stage in the present day, 2018, complete with images of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and others adorning the backdrop.

We are then rolled along backward to 1976, where a successful but superficial movie producer named Franklin Shepard (Jim DeSelm) is hosting a swanky but shallow Hollywood party at his Bel Air mansion.

Among the guests is an old friend of Frank's named Mary Flynn (Neela Barton), who as a drunken mess can't hide her disgust at what he has become.

This is where most productions of Merrily We Roll Along seem to begin, with the action onstage eventually proceeding back to 1957, when Frank and Charley Kringus (Matt Crowle) were a fledgling composer & lyricist team, and the journalistic writer Mary their newfound neighbor and friend.

As with most things Sondheim--and as with many works that mess with chronological linearity, from Pulp Fiction to Memento and more--there is intriguing value in telling the story this way.

Starting by seeing where and how Frank, Charley and Mary wind up adds potency to discerning "why?" across 20 years that begin (though end the show) with such idealistic promise.

And opening with the title song, we get several wonderful Sondheim tunes accompanying the script by George Furth, loosely based on a George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart's 1934 play, Merrily We Roll Along. (I assume the "book" has been tinkered with over time, but Furth remains solely credited.)

"Old Friends" is quite well-sung, a couple of times, by the old friends, while Crowle--who is typically stellar--shines in skewering his frustratingly rapacious pal in "Franklin Shepard, Inc."

Two of Frank's wives-turned-exes factor in, with the later--but first seen--of these, Gussie (Keely Vasquez) complementing DeSelm well on "Growing Up," and then belting a nice solo number to begin Act II.

As Sondheim notes in his Finishing the Hat compendium, the unique end-to-beginning conceit of Merrily We Roll Along messes with the common Broadway custom of following a song with an often more reflective reprise later in the show.

Here Sondheim had to create what he dubs "reverse reprises," most notably with the gorgeous "Not a Day Goes By."

When we first hear it sung, terrifically by Aja Wiltshire, as Frank's first wife Beth, it is amid divorce proceedings circa 1967, infused with anguish and acrimony.

The (reverse) reprise late in Act II, finds things in 1960, with Beth & Frank marrying, so "Not a Day Goes By" is much more optimistic, although Beth is accompanied by Mary--who has an unrequited crush on Frank--so as to yet instill some regret into the more positive reading of the song.

Two of the show's very best songs are the last two, with "Opening Doors" a delightful chronicling of young city folk getting started in their careers.

Ardent fans of Sondheim--by 1981 long celebrated as one of the best ever, but never a populist--can't help but smile at self-referential cracks the maestro includes about Frank & Charley being told to write more hummable tunes.

"Our Time" ends Merrily We Roll Along at the beginning of Frank, Charley and Mary's friendship, as they look for Sputnik in the sky and sing of endless possibilities.

So there is a whole lot to like about Merrily We Roll Along, as a musical and specifically this production.

But, seemingly because of the unique time structure, we are left with but cursory glimpses of the breakdown of Frank's marriages and relatively scant appreciation of "why?" he and his friends have changed so dramatically over time.

And although Charley's wife and four kids are repeatedly mentioned, we really only see Frank's wives and single son, Frank, Jr. (Zachary Scott Fewkes and Asher Schenk), so the "life happens" observations feel a bit too unilateral.

As such, the insights I love getting from Sondheim shows are, in this one, found even more predominantly in the songs.

Imaginably, if I saw simply a concert performance featuring 10 or so of Merrily We Roll Along's best songs, delivered by the excellent vocalists in this cast, I might well bestow @@@@@, or at least @@@@1/2.

So in many ways I indeed was wowed, repeatedly, and I would expect Sondheim lovers to be similarly delighted.

And this Porchlight production--in the troupe's nice new home at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts--should also satisfy almost anyone looking for a nice night of quality musical theater.

But in sum, I was a little less enthralled than I might have been, and feel @@@@ is fair.

For an excellent show, but not an absolutely phenomenal one--or even whatever 1/2@ below @@@@@ may mean.

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