Reviewed by Judy Richter
TheatreWorks and its founding artistic director, Robert Kelley, are having another successful go at "Merrily We Roll Along." The earlier staging in 1986 was only the second production of the 1985 revision of the 1981 work by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and author George Furth. The creators subsequently revised it several more times. The current production is based on the latest revision.
The fact that the musical has been revised so often reflects its rocky history, mainly revolving around its book. Broadway director Harold Prince first had the idea of creating a musical based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Sondheim and then Furth latched onto the idea and went to work. They changed a number of details from the play, but the twist was the same: The book works backward. In the newest version of the musical, the action starts in 1976 and works its way back to 1957, recounting how the principal characters changed over time.
The current version starts with a posh cocktail party in Bel Air, Calif., in 1976, whereas earlier versions started with the main character as the graduation speaker at his high school alma mater in 1985 before going into the party in 1979. The changes still fall short of the books for some of Sondheim's other shows, but the general outline is the same, and of course there's still Sondheim's inimitable music, the work of a genius.
As the present version opens, composer/producer Franklin Shephard (Damon Kirsche) and his sexy, catty second wife, Gussie (Riette Burdick) are hosting a cocktail party after his latest movie, a piece of schlock. becomes a commercial success. One of Frank's oldest and dearest friends, Mary Flynn (Molly Bell), sits on the sidelines, getting royally sloshed and making sarcastic remarks to the effect that he has sold out. Going back through the years, we see how Frank and his creative partner, writer Charley Kringas (Robert Brewer), had a falling out over Frank's abandonment of his youthful idealism and musical talents to produce lucrative but insipid shows. Mary, who has always been in love with Frank, tries to play peacemaker.
Along the way, Frank also goes through a bitter divorce from his first wife, Beth (Lianne Marie Dobbs), with whom he has a son, Frank Jr. (11-year-old Julian Hornik, a budding star), and we see how he became involved with Gussie. Finally, we see the morning in 1957 when the youthful Frank and Charley, longtime friends, meet Mary on the roof of their New York apartment building, where they have gone to catch sight of Sputnik, the Russian satellite that started the space age.
Sondheim's score is laced with great songs, and the cast does them all justice. Dobbs is terrific in "Not a Day Goes By"; Kirsche and Brewer blend seamlessly in "Good Thing Going"; Bell joins them in "Old Friends"; and the entire company, led by the two men plus Bell, closes with the inspiring "Our Time." The acting also excels by all the principals as well as the ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles.
The musical director is William Liberatore, whose worthy onstage orchestra is miked too loud in the opening and entr'acte (sound design by Cliff Caruthers). Choreographer Alex Perez supports Kelley's smart direction, which is also aided by Joe Ragey's fluid stage design and Pamila Gray's lighting. The costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, who usually does topnotch work, don't seem as well made as usual, and some of the women's outfits are unflattering.
Overall, though, this is a first-rate production, one that puts this show in the best light possible thanks to Kelley and his outstanding cast.