While most of us are driven by success in one form or another, the trappings and temptations that accompany it can and do change people for the worst. Certainly, that’s not to say that accomplishments are to be avoided, but they should be at least pursued with a mature perspective that treasures what really matters: love and friendship.
Essentially, that is the crux of “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), which, ironically, being a story about the dark side of success, experienced none of that at all, having closed on Broadway only 16 official performances into its run. Decades later, the current production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. — which runs through December 18th – is not only deftly directed by Michael Arden, but dovetails agreeably with the release of the recent documentary about the musical, entitled, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”
Based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, with music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by George Furth, this revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” proffers illuminating insights about a narrative that unfolds in reverse chronological order between 1976 and 1957, and is centered around one man. The linchpin is Franklin Shepard, a composer-turned-Hollywood producer, who, over time, corrupts the love and admiration once shared between his lyricist and best friend (Charley Kringas), writer and confidant (Mary Flynn), first wife (Beth), and son (Frank, Jr.). Sadly, the allure of thrill, more money, and approval gradually alienates those who truly enriched Shepard.
Staged with an appropriate amount of sparkle by Dane Laffrey, but never going overboard, the predominantly minimalistic presentation allows the performers to be elevated by the scenery, as opposed to becoming overwhelmed by it. The resourceful cast doesn’t have any weak links, either, with the leads setting the tone for a production where there is no squandered lines or movement on the stage.
The male lead, Aaron Lazar, plays Franklin Shepard with a suitable disconnectedness from reality. Lazar makes sure to act oblivious to the surroundings that he has forged by the will of his role’s decisions. Yet, as the haze of fame clears, under the armor of adulation is one who is unhappy, but unwilling to admit it to himself as we, the audience, see how the passage of time has eroded a man who started out with the purest intentions — to simply make music. Lazar, who has a robust stage presence about him, is consistently authentic as Shepard, specifically standing out in the Act I-concluding number “Now You Know,” which deals with the emotionally relatable topic of moving on from separation in a frenetic, get-up-and-don’t-look-back style of physical exertion.
Five-time Emmy winner Wayne Brady, who is inarguably the most well-known performer in the cast, portrays the understated Charley Kringas with both desolation and drollery. One can really feel Kringas’ anguish as someone who has not only lost his best friend to avarice, but one who, despite having four children to feed, would never compromise his dignity for short-term financial gain. In one of the most rousing and funny scenes, Brady and Lazar’s characters are interviewed on-air by Melody Butiu’s hysterical newswoman persona, prompting Brady’s Kringas to go off on a risible, speak-song-laden tirade (“Franklin Shepard, Inc.”). It is a masterclass on timing, facial expressions, body language, and pitch memory.
Donna Vivino as Mary Flynn, a character perpetually tortured in her unrequited love for Franklin, is also a revelation. Vivino emanates a genuine personableness in her performance that is respectfully direct, and never mawkish. She is on the level with the audience with regard to her character’s motivation to keep intact the invaluable camaraderie of Franklin and Charley. In “Old Friends,” and especially “Like It Was,” Vivino infuses her breathtaking, pitch-precise notes with a moving melancholy that strikes at the core of one’s heart with a plea for nostalgia, and for an innocence that is immutable, impervious to the rigors of cynicism.
As Gussie Carnegie, Saycon Sengbloh manifests all the characterizations of a rising star who, by virtue of her improving circumstances, decides to trade up in the spouse department, leaving Joe Josephson (Amir Talai) behind. Though it’s easy to dislike Sengbloh’s opportunistic character, Carnegie is played with a degree of integrity and empowerment, graying the judgment upon which she and Franklin’s union comes to fruition. In fact, as we learn in the first scene (at the end of the chronological chain, in 1976) – when we witness history repeat itself with her being cheated on by Franklin for another starlet (played with a nice energy by Rachel Ferrera) – we are left to contemplate if Carnegie is perhaps more of a victim than a home wrecker.
Furthermore, Amir Talai is a welcome surprise as Broadway producer Josephson because, while we feel a little sorry for him when he is abandoned for Franklin, we still favor his character because of how uproarious he is in certain situations. One highlight is how he processes the roar of the crowd during Act II when the fictional stage production of “Musical Husbands” is deemed a success (segueing into “It’s a Hit”). Seemingly just as he did in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “The Fantasticks” earlier this year, Talai is adept at being patient, and using non-verbal signals to impeccably communicate his character’s personality.
Rounding out the main characters is the esteemed Whitney Bashor as Beth – an earnest character with charming origins who wins an audition to join Charley and Franklin’s cabaret group before falling in love with and marrying the latter, producing a son in Frank, Jr. (played with absorbing sensitivity by Maximus Brandon Verso). When Franklin’s infidelity (with Gussie) leads to their divorce, we experience, through Bashor’s performance, how heartbroken Beth is, ravaged by her eternal love for her ex-husband, as in when she sings with heartfelt wistfulness, “Not a Day Goes By.” Ultimately, Beth is a woman who suffers for having trusted her husband a little too much, but it’s difficult to say if being more protective of Franklin would’ve changed the result or just pushed him away sooner.
Lastly, the supporting cast succeeds tremendously in sustaining the verve and vitality of the show, especially when the dramatic elements of rejection and sorrow are being delved into. One standout is Eric B. Anthony, who demonstrates much of the liveliness on stage that he did during this past summer’s “Recorded in Hollywood.” Likewise, Max Chucker, like Anthony, exhibits a top-notch fluidity of movement, ensuring an engaging pace particularly during the title song numbers, and at one point even skillfully plays the piano as it is being wheeled around. In addition, Doran Butler and Jennifer Foster bring a lot of youthful athleticism to the dance sequences – as they do a great justice to Eamon Foley’s choreography – and refuse to waver in their energy.
Overall, this revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” offers an enthralling pastiche of characters driven and sometimes led astray by the most primary of human desires – to love and be accepted in return. It is perhaps even more topical now than it was during its conception 35 years ago, and thanks to Michael Arden’s focused direction and Music Supervisor Matt Gould’s prowess, this show not only shepherds Stephen Sondheim’s vision, but dutifully expands on it.
For more information about “Merrily We Roll Along” and future shows at The Wallis, please visit thewallis.org