‘Merrily We Roll Along’ a worthwhile time
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticemail@example.com April 20, 2011 5:56PM
◆ Through May 7
◆ Music Theatre Company Space, 1859 Green Bay Rd.,
◆ Tickets, $30
◆ (847) 579-4900;
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
One theater company closes its doors and another opens them even wider. That is the story now unfolding in Highland Park as the Music Theatre Company, a new Equity kid on the suburban block, presents its starry revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” at the Karger Center, a space previously occupied by the now defunct Apple Tree Theatre.
Featuring some of the same enormously gifted musical performers you might ordinarily see at the Marriott Theatre or Drury Lane Oakbrook — but on a far more intimate stage that makes acoustic rather than amplified singing possible — director-choreographer Jessica Redish’s production of this 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical doesn’t entirely solve the problems that from the start plagued the show’s book (the work of George Furth, who borrowed its essential story and reverse chronology structure from an identically titled 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart). But the ferocity of the acting, the beauty of the score, and the excellent vocal work of a large and mostly very young ensemble all come together to make this a welcome addition to the long list of Sondheim “reinventions” mounted in this city. And for anyone who has so far failed to notice the particular brilliance of Jessie Mueller (who just played Miss Adelaide in “Guys & Dolls” at the Marriott) or Alan Schmuckler (a gifted writer as well as performer), this show will serve as an ideal introduction.
“Merrily” is one of those self-reflective show biz sagas that looks at how several different young talents ended up at quite different rungs on the ladder of success. It begins in 1976, at a flashy party thrown by Franklin Shepard (Jarrod Zimmerman), a gifted Broadway composer who gave it all up to become a wealthy Hollywood film producer — a career shift propelled by the hustling of his second wife, Gussie (Stephanie Herman), the actress and ruthless go-getter who is somewhat older than he. His angry, disillusioned college pal and altruistic collaborator, Charles Kringas (Schmuckler), is still hoping to complete a long-delayed show with him, while Mary Flynn (Mueller), a writer who was friends with both men, still nurses a hopeless love for Franklin, and has turned to drink to drown her sorrows.
What happens next is that instead of flashing back to the start, when they all were just beginning their careers in 1957, and sharing their dreams on a Manhattan rooftop, the show steps back sequentially from 1976, and the characters’ transformations, while comprehensible, feel more awkward than organic.
The show’s score, however, is sensational, with Schmuckler brilliantly manic and angry in his bravura turn in a television studio scene set in 1973 that climaxes with that pull-out-all-the stops number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc”; with Mueller supremely smart, vulnerable and at moments deeply bitter at the way her life has turned out; with Frank’s first wife, Beth (Dara Cameron, who gives a superb rendering of the show’s most torchy song, “Not a Day Goes By”) eventually broken; and with a youthful trio of Zimmerman, Schmuckler, Cameron and pianist and musical director Ian Weinberger hilariously recreating their early cabaret act,“Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” from the Kennedy era. (The four-piece band, including Weinberger, Patrick Rehker, Adam DeGroot and David Eisenreich, is ideal.)
Despite the book’s flaws there is a real poignancy and truth to this story of the choices people make — whether they are artists or not — and how youthful dreams can become twisted by both individual character and the ordinary pressures of life.
Note: For one (free) performance, at 2 p.m. on April 23 at the Music Theatre Company space, Michael Weber will direct a reading of the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play that loosely inspired this musical, with David Girolmo as narrator, and Mueller, Zimmerman and a large additional cast on tap.