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Merrily We Roll Along

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Direction and musical staging by Amy Rogers
St. Bart’s Players
St. Bart’s Playhouse, Park Avenue and 50th St.
Non-union production (closes May 7)
Review by Byrne Harrison

As the final show in their 78th season, The St. Bart’s Players chose the challenging and interesting Merrily We Roll Along. While the production didn’t always roll smoothly, the cast and crew certainly imbued the show with heart and enthusiasm.

Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of Frank (Greg Halpen), his best friends Charley (Brad Negbaur) and Mary (Hope Landry), and the women he loves -- his first wife, Beth (Reanna Muskovitz), and his mistress/second wife, Gussie (Merrill Vaughn). Beginning in 1976, as their lives and relationships crumble, the play jumps backwards in time, scene by scene, until it reaches 1957, showing the bright-eyed, optimistic Frank, Charley and Mary as they begin their lives and careers. Each scene shows the crucial missteps that led to their ruined relationships and lost dreams.

Sondheim’s score and lyrics are wonderful. The songs are complex and interesting, as one would expect, but not too difficult to sing or understand. Furth’s book is full of amusing lines and has its share of powerful moments. It also captures a variety of different periods in American culture.

Technically, the show was satisfactory. David Evans Morris’s sets made good use of the space, particularly by utilizing platforms. Jay Scott’s lighting design was solid, though his use of spotlights in Gussie’s numbers was intrusive and unnecessary. Anne Lommel’s costumes were well-done and reinforced the various periods nicely. Musical direction was handled well by Nancy Evers, who was also a member of the four-person orchestra. Occasionally the instruments overwhelmed the singers, especially in the first few musical numbers, but things balanced nicely after that. The sound system was out of whack, leading to a low-level hum from the speakers during several numbers and at least one loud blast of noise when the actors got too close to the boundary microphones.

The large cast was generally competent, with a couple of excellent performances. Chief among these was Merrill Vaughn as Gussie Carnegie. Vaughn has a commanding stage presence and a powerful and agile voice. Brad Negbaur was also very talented, though his character -- a mensch and a bit of a doormat -- didn’t give him many opportunities to really show his stuff. However, his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc” was marvelous. Hope Landry’s Mary Flynn was big, brash, and frequently blotto. Unfortunately, Landry had a tendency to shrink into herself when she wasn’t speaking or singing, which wasn’t right for the character. Finally, Greg Halpen, who had the unenviable task of being the central character of the show, just wasn’t on top of the challenge. He did fine with Sondheim’s music and lyrics, but Furth’s dialogue was often spoken as though learned phonetically, with no connection to the meaning of the words. This wasn’t true in all scenes, which could indicate a too-short rehearsal period.

The ensemble was particularly good, especially in “Merrily We Roll Along,” “The Blob,” and their various transition scenes. Standout ensemble members included David Pasteelnick, Lesley Berry, and Daniel Burke. Also worth mentioning is sixth-grader Spencer Langerman, who played Frank, Jr. and sang one of the transition verses of “Merrily We Roll Along” to the delight of the audience.

While this production featured some wonderful moments, it ultimately fell short of its potential.

(Merrily We Roll Along also featured Harley Diamond, Mikey LoBalsamo, Nick Walkonis, Jill Conklin, Kenny D’Elia, Tammy Williams, and Aili Venho)

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2006 Byrne Harrison