Sunday, May 10, 2015

Merrily We Roll Along

The Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) is presenting an excellent production of Merrily We Roll Along, and you've got two more weekends to catch it. With a top ticket price of $18, it's quite a bargain.

Park, Bonino, Mosbacher, Rhodes-Devey, Horton
As you likely already know, Merrily was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (based on the drama by Kaufman and Hart), is told backward, and was a huge flop when it opened on Broadway in the 1980s. It has since been rewritten in ways that both add to and take away from the original, but the basic story has remained the same: Franklin, Charley, and Mary are three best friends, artistic and ambitious, whose lives fly off into different trajectories that tear the friendship apart.

For a production of Merrily to work, you need a good trio of leads and smart direction. This production has all that and more. Jack Mosbacher as Franklin Shepard has the charm and voice necessary for this difficult role. He is particularly good when playing young Frank; his puppy dog likeability and sweetness let us see just why so many people are attracted to him. Nicholas Park captures both Charley's idealism and whininess, and he does a sterling, if slightly overfrenetic, job on "Franklin Shephard, Inc." Ally Bonino is effectively vulnerable and lost as Mary and also very funny.

Dev Bondarin's direction serves the show beautifully. She uses the multi-level set well and guides the calibration of Franklin's, Charley's, and Mary's growth (or, perhaps, shrinkage) gracefully. Also, she has led the cast into making each and every background character an individual, giving the show a vibrant texture. The choreography by Misha Shields is good if somewhat repetitive, and Ming Aldrich-Gan's musical direction is strong and lively. (The combination of electronic and live music takes a while to gel, however.) The set (Andrea Nice), costumes (Jennifer Jacob), lighting (Jesse Sheldon), and props (Katie White) are good. However, Gussie's wig is a distracting mistake; luckily, Lily Ann Carlson manages to bring Gussie to vibrant life anyway. The clean sound design by Arielle Edwards is much appreciated!

The rest of the first-rate cast deserves mention as well: Alex Akin, Joseph Bowen, Joanna Carpenter, Christopher Darrin, Audrey Heffernan Meyer, Luke Hoback, Greg Horton (wonderful as Joe Josephson), Kevin Ray Johnson, Jay Paranada, Jason Pintar, Rachel Rhodes-Devey (outstanding as Beth), Anne Wechsler, and Matt Welsh.

I'm still not a big fan of Merrily. I find reverse chronology to be generally annoying, in this and many other shows, movies, and books. Conflict is dissipated when we already know the outcome, and there are many other, better, ways to show unfulfilled promise (see, for example, the brilliance of Follies or Chita Rivera's pas de deux with her younger self in The Visit). Also, without our being previously invested in the characters, songs like "Not a Day Go By" lose some of their potential potency. The version of Merrily I'd like to see would start with "The Hills of Tomorrow" (no longer in the show), proceed in regular chronological order, and then go back to "The Hills of Tomorrow" (similar to the structure used in the musical Titanic).

However, and this is a huge however, the score is frequently stunning, and the second half of the Act 2, from "Bobby, Jackie, Jack" (the Kennedy novelty number) through "Our Time" (a lovely ode to a future that seems full of possibility) is kinda perfect. This production nails it.

The APAC production of Merrily is a treat. If you have any interest at all in the show, make sure to see it.

(Press tickets; front row. The publicist had reserved seats for me further back, but I'm a front row fan and sat there instead. The front row was a mixed blessing; I had to make sure that my toes weren't trod on, and on rare occasions cast members got in the way of my sight lines. But if you are a fan of uber-intimacy, as I am, I recommend the front row highly. Also, for those people who don't like sitting close, I asked someone who sat toward the rear of the theatre if he was able to hear everything clearly, and he said absolutely. )

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