Merrily We Roll Along was a failure when it debuted on Broadway in 1981, but Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s scintillating, gloomy musical is doing very nicely in Queens in 2015. The Astoria Performing Arts Center’s production, snappily directed by Dev Bondarin and choreographed with inventive energy by Misha Shields, features an able cast, a compelling if depressing story, and above all, Stephen Sondheim’s incredible songs.
Told in reverse chronological order, the story centers on Frank Shepard, a Broadway composer turned Hollywood artiste; his two longtime friends, lyricist Charley Kringas and freelance writer Mary Flynn; and Frank’s wives and paramours. Though Frank is the focal point, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and as one would hope, all the leads bring something special, yet no performer stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Jack Mosbacher’s Frank is a well-rounded and golden-voiced character, with a resonant baritone that projects well. The less resonant voices have a harder time in APAC’s medium-sized theater, as there’s no amplification, which is refreshingly old-fashioned but sometimes frustrating. The five-player band’s keyboards tended to overpower some of the voices, especially the women in their lower registers. From the fourth-row, I could hear all right (and see the actors’ faces clearly too, which always helps), but I wondered if those in the back rows could make out all the lyrics.
Ally Bonino’s Mary is a paragon of unrequited love. Her drunk tear-down of the Hollywood elite’s artificiality, and by extension of her old buddy Frank’s new career path, is one of the show’s most powerful scenes. Nicholas Park’s Charley, easy to sympathize with, laser-focused, and amusing throughout, even at his angriest, brilliantly burns up the TV interview number “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Greg Horton scatters flecks of perfectly timed comic gold in the smaller role of Joe, the producer married to Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (LilyAnn Carlson) until she leaves him for Frank. Carlson’s Gussie is deep, vampy, and winning all at the same time, and Carlson has the pipes for Broadway, though I suspect she, like others in the cast, has gotten used to being mic’d and not having to project in a large room.
Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Beth, Frank’s first wife, is very believable and sings wonderfully. She makes “Not a Day Goes By” a high point of the show, and she, Mosbacher and Park pull off the tricky Tom Lehrer-esque “Bobby, Jackie, Jack” with precision, making it gloriously funny and fun.
Some shows, when revived, seem dated. Merrily We Roll Along is literally dated, with the year of each scene indicated to us explicitly, from Frank’s Hollywood success in 1976 all the way back to the three friends’ idealistic college-age dreaming in 1957. Along with acting challenges, well met by the cast, this requires frequent changes of period costumes, which are convincingly designed by Jennifer Jacob.
The story reveals some weaknesses as it winds back to its beginning. Charley makes us understand his disappointment with the fading of his creative collaboration with Frank, but why, amid all Frank’s success upon entering the world of Hollywood, is the composer himself so (secretly) miserable? Gussie’s admission to a younger Frank, years earlier, that Broadway stardom hasn’t made her happy either may be a clue, but it’s not really an answer, unless we’re expected to believe that only in struggling and failing can artists be happy.
But the music is so good that I found the story’s failings paled. The lyrics delve into the details of the bitter tale with that brilliant fusion of cleverness and colloquiality that no one but Sondheim can do so well. Similarly, his tunes and rhythms roll along with so many surprises, and yet so naturally and memorably – so merrily – that all I could do was marvel and delight, even under the heavy irony of the youthfully optimistic final numbers, “Opening Doors” and “Our Time.” Stephen Sondheim may be in the twilight of his career, but it’s still his time.
Catch Merrily We Roll Along until May 23.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B004VWXUDM][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0000014VA][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B007Q1IT1I][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0679439072][amazon template=iframe image&asin=030759341X]