Merrily We Roll Along

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by J. V. Mercanti
Musical direction by Michael Smith
Equity showcase (closes May 23)
The Gallery Players
199 14th St., Brooklyn (718/595-0547)
Review by Seth Bisen-Hersh

In 1981, an ambitious new musical, which told its story going backwards in time, ran on Broadway for only 2 weeks. Over the next few decades, with a few rewrites, this show would become one of the most amazing pieces of theatre ever written. However ingenious it is, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along is a very hard piece to get right. The Gallery Players in Brooklyn did an admirable job trying, but unfortunately fell short of the mark.

Merrily We Roll Along follows Frank Shepard from 1976 to 1959. The show works backwards -- showing Frank in his 40s as a successful movie producer. By the end of the first scene, everything is blown apart, and the question is asked: "How did you get to be here?" What follows are scenes of his past that show the audience where and when Frank made his "wrong" decisions.

The other characters that surround Frank include his two best friends, Mary Flynn and Charlie Kringas. As the show goes backwards through time, it is clear that Frank once shared the ideals Charley maintains through his life. Mary remains in love with Frank through his two marriages to Gussie Carnegie and Beth Shepard, but never reveals how she feels. By the end of the play and the beginning of their lives in New York, the three are young and optimistic about their future, while the audience knows how their lives really unfold.

Furth's book is complex, but well-crafted so as not to be overwhelming. Sondheim's score is among his best and most melodic. The score is intricately set up, so that many melodies become accompaniments or get re-orchestrated into other songs. The songs are brimming with emotion. The lyrics are witty; the internal rhymes mind-blowing. The score is pure brilliance.

The cast of 16 mostly lacked energy and focus. Some of the leads fared better than others: Molly Sorohan embodied Gussie; she captured her sexy persuasiveness and also belted with great aplomb. Anne Gaynor was very convincing as Mary; she was realistically grounded and delivered every joke line with strong comic timing. Finally, Michael Hunsaker had a textured tone that permeated all of Frank's songs.

Most of the problems with the show could probably be blamed on the director. J. V. Mercanti was unable to get the cast where they needed to be for a convincing production. His staging was also cramped at times. Even less accomplished than the direction was the choreography by Sean McKnight. There was not enough movement during the numbers; there was also not enough variety, and there was very little innovation. In fact, the only dance break in the show (at the end of Act One in "Now You Know") was cut.

Technically, the show was fine. The set, by Tim Amrhein, was particularly clever and very creative. There were moveable stairs and flats and platforms; it was like one of those puzzle games where the pieces are consistent, but you move them around to create totally different shapes. It was fun to watch, and when the doors became the window lights for the roof at the end, it was awesome.

Merrily... is a hard show to put on and pull off. The Gallery Players' production was moving and entertaining and featured some good performances, yet somehow lacked the energy and drive the show needs.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Performance: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Seth Bisen-Hersh