Some productions belong to the actors, some to the writer, some even to the designers. Then there are Sondheim shows directed by Oanh Nguyen. These productions belong to the director, and the latest Sondheim/Nguyen collaboration, the composer’s 1981 Merrily We Roll Along, is no exception. That’s not to say that Nguyen’s cast aren’t delivering fine performances.  They are. That’s not to say that his design team haven’t produced some brilliant work here. They have. But what sets this Merrily apart from others is Nguyen’s vision.  You may have seen Merrily We Roll Along before, but you haven’t seen this Merrily We Roll Along.

Merrily’s road from Broadway to the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills was a long and winding (and rocky) one.  The Broadway original was a flop, lasting only sixteen performances following a lengthy, troubled out-of-town tryout period and a then unheard-of almost two months of previews.  Only Sondheim’s score was praised by the New York critics.  It wasn’t until the show’s 1990 Washington D.C. revisal that Merrily began to take on its current shape, and a 1994 off-Broadway production finally made it to over fifty performances (fifty-four to be precise) and left behind a cast recording that reflects its present form. Further revivals followed, leading up to 2010’s Merrily à la Oanh.

Perhaps early audiences didn’t take to the show’s reverse chronology.  It begins in 1975, its trio of lead characters permanently estranged despite their friendship’s promising start some eighteen years before. The musical’s final scene, set on a rooftop as Sputnik orbits the earth (signaling the beginning of both a friendship and the space age), is all the more powerful because we’ve seen just how bad it all turned out. The friendship, not the space age, that is.

Today’s theatergoers may have become more sophisticated than their 1981 counterparts, or perhaps they’ve simply seen enough productions of The Last Five Years or Harold Pinter’s Betrayal to get Merrily’s reverse chronological structure. For whatever reason, Merrily We Roll Along just keeps rolling along…and has at last made it to the Chance.

You know you’re in for an Oanh Nguyen production from the moment you see Christopher Scott Murillo’s striking charcoal-and-black set. Three paneled walls, a covered grand piano upstage, and a piano bench.  That’s all. A man, Franklin Shepard (Jeremy Fillinger) takes his seat at the piano, lifts the cover, and begins to play a tune. From behind the left and right panels (which turn out to be doors) emerge the six-member “Greek Chorus” who will be witnessing and participating in this journey back in time.  Joining along in the title song, they begin circling Franklin, faster and faster, introducing a “rolling” motif which will be repeated throughout the evening.

George (Company) Furth’s biting book next takes us to Frank’s ritzy Bel Air mansion circa 1975, the first of Murillo’s effective projections giving us both the date and a clear sense of where we are.  It’s party time, and in Sondheim’s words, Frank’s guests are “the movers” and “the shapers. These are the people who fill the papers,” and Franklin Shepard is one of them, a composer who has reached the top—but forgotten what it was that once inspired him.  His longtime friend Mary Flynn (Amie Bjorklund) is there too, drunk as always and disgusted by Frank’s choice of friends and career. (The one-time Broadway composer has turned movie producer!) This party marks the end of Frank and Mary’s friendship (though perhaps not of her unrequited love for him), and the beginning of our trip back in time.

The year rolls back to 1973, and the location to a New York TV studio where Frank and his best friend and lyric-writing partner Charley Kringas (Ryland Dodge) are being interviewed about their collaboration, though it is clear from Charley’s rant about “Franklin Shepard Inc.” that these “Old Friends” can never again be “Like It Was.”  (The quotation marks surround three of Sondheim’s best Merrily songs, first heard in this scene.  Other memorable musical numbers include “Good Thing Going” and “Our Time.”)

As Merrily We Roll Along progresses, we meet the women in Franklin’s life. There’s first wife Beth Spencer (Liz Holt), the third member of his nightclub act with Charley back in Greenwich Village circa 1960, and second wife Gussie Carnegie (Laura M. Hathaway), the Broadway star he leaves Beth for and ends up cheating on.  Other supporting characters include ambitious TV journalist K.T. (Alex Bueno), lawyer/deal maker Jerome (Kyle Cooper), aspiring screenwriter Ru (Andrew Eddins), and bigwig producer Joe (Richard Comeau).  

In Nguyen’s vision, Bueno, Cooper, Eddins, Hathaway, Holt, and Comeau scarcely ever leave the stage, whether portraying the show’s many minor characters and walk-ons or observing/ignoring the action or sometimes just posing, as the best New York and Hollywood poseurs are so adept at doing.

Nguyen and whiz choreographer Kelly Todd keep this Greek Chorus busy indeed, manipulating the set’s only other props (a half dozen silver painted straight back chairs) into an astounding array of positions, alternately standing/sitting next to, behind, or upon them, all the while singing, dancing, and acting this role or that.  It’s very surreal and very effective.

Following Harold Prince’s original concept, most of the nine-member cast appear to be somewhere in their early twenties, so that even when they are portraying 40somethings, we see them as they originally were, young and fresh and full of promise. The only exceptions are Fillinger and Comeau, and the latter’s character presumably starts out even older than the other characters end up, so the casting makes sense.

Fillinger, Dodge, and Bjorkland are precisely the kind of young character actors (as opposed to traditional leads) that their parts demand, and all three acquit themselves admirably, both as actors and as singers. Holt is particularly fine as Beth, singing the show’s most gorgeous ballad “Not A Day Goes By” with feeling and depth. Bueno, Cooper, Eddins, and Comeau are terrific in all their roles, especially Bueno as an oh-so full-of-herself “newswoman.” Most impressive of all is the dazzling Hathaway, who manages to convince us that this very young actress we see before us is a Broadway legend. 

Music director Mike Wilkins appears to have overcome whatever opening night jitters may have affected his work in November’s Little Women. He does a fine job on piano (backed by Jonathan Proctor on flute, clarinet, and alto sax, and Cole Peterson on percussion), and the vocal harmonies of his cast are terrifically in sync.

In addition to Murillo’s set and projections, the stellar design team also includes KC Wilkerson’s striking lighting and Katie Schmidt’s snazzy black-and-white costumes.

With this excellent revival, Oanh Nguyen once again proves himself a master at making the very best of Sondheim. Perhaps what Broadway needs to finally get that hit production of Merrily We Roll Along is the right director.  Mr. Sondheim, are you listening?

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
February 14, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Christopher Trela, Arts PRv

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