For a show that lasted only sixteen performances in its original 1981 Broadway run, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along has had a remarkable “afterlife.” Over the past three decades, there’s probably not an American musical theater company that hasn’t staged it at least once. This reviewer alone has seen five productions of Merrily in the last four and a half years, Actors Co-op’s current revival being the latest and quite possibly the overall best of the bunch—and that’s saying a lot.

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 and poignant 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.

Now Actors Co-op gets its crack at the show, and considering its track record with musicals (from She Loves Me and Damn Yankees in the 1990s to 2000s’ hits like 1776, Into The Woods, and last year’s brilliant Big River, winner of eight Scenies including Richard Israel’s Director Of The Year)—it was a likely bet from the get-go that Merrily We Roll Along would be another Co-op smash.

The Co-op couldn’t have made a better choice than Israel to helm this Merrily revival. The actor/director played lead character Charley Kringas in West Coast Ensemble’s raved-about 2000 production, a role which he reprised for Musical Theatre Guild in 2006. Israel knows the show inside-out, and rather than concoct a revolutionary new “director’s concept” production, opts for a more traditional, though no less successful approach.

The show opens with Broadway/Hollywood mega-composer Franklin Shepard (Brent Schindele) at the piano, reflecting on the past twenty or so years, as one by one the characters who have figured (or in the case of Merrily, will figure) in his life join him on stage for the title song.

Furth’s deliciously biting book next takes us to Frank’s ritzy Bel Air mansion circa 1975. 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 (Leslie Spencer) is there too, drunk as always and disgusted by Frank’s choice of friends and career. (The one-time Broadway composer has had the gall to turn 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 journey 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 (Matt Bauer) 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 make it “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 (Selah Victor), the third member of his nightclub act with Charley back in Greenwich Village circa 1960, and second wife Gussie Carnegie (Gina D’Acciaro), the Broadway star he leaves Beth for and ends up cheating on. Other supporting characters include ambitious TV journalist K.T. (Catherine Gray), bigwig producer Joe (John O’Brien), lawyer/deal maker Jerome (Stephen Vendette), aspiring screenwriter Ru (Dominic Leslie), and Hollywood starlet Meg (Rory Patterson). There’s also Tyler (David Greenman), Terry (Ben Ryan), Scotty (Michael Covert), and Frank Junior (Sam Melnikov).

Since Merrily We Roll Along’s lead trio age back from mid-forties to mid-twenties, the show can be cast in various ways. The New York original opted for one of the youngest casts in Broadway history, with an entirely under-25 ensemble. Israel has picked leads somewhere in the middle and it works, probably because it’s easier to accept actors playing a younger version of themselves than younger actors attempting to appear older and wiser than their years.

And what a trio of leads they are! Schindele is one of L.A. busiest and most acclaimed musical theater leading men, Bauer has numerous Broadway and New York credits to his name, and popular Co-op member Spencer made her off-Broadway debut last year in The Marvelous Wonderettes. Each seems born to play his or her role here. Schindele’s blond matinee idol good looks are matched by his vocal prowess and acting chops. (The actor recently won a Scenie for his star performance in Souvenir earlier this year at the Falcon.) Bauer, a song-and-dance man extraordinaire in ICT’s Backwards In High Heels, gets Merrily’s prime acting challenge as the embittered Charley, one which he nails, particularly in the manic “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” a tour-de-force five minutes that earns Bauer deserved cheers. Spencer follows her moving performance in Co-op Too’s recent bonus production of Trails with some of her best work ever as Mary, moving from overweight drunk to slender, starry-eyed innocent, her “Like It Was” providing a terrific vocal showcase for Spencer’s rich alto.

As Broadway star Gussie, Co-op treasure D’Acciaro unleashes her inner diva in a performance that matches her 2008 Ovation Award-nominated turn in Tales Of Tinseltown in impact, though this time around D’Acciaro plays it straight, digs deep, and gives Gussie not only the best voice in a vocally strong cast but some of the best dramatic moments as well.

There’s not a weak link in the triple-threat ensemble. Victor has just the right sweetness to play Beth, gets to sing one of Sondheim’s best ballads ever, “Not A Day Goes By,” and showcases her comedic talents opposite Schindele and Bauer in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” Giving particularly noteworthy performances in supporting and cameo roles are Gray, doing a sly turn as a TV journalist, O’Brien, as a producer who goes from washed up to on the top, and Patterson, as a bubble-headed would-be actress. Melnikov makes for a cute Franklin Jr., a child who does not shrink, no matter how much younger he gets.

Choreographer John Todd has created some snappy dance sequences which unfold in front of Stephen Gifford’s clever set, whose sliding panels serve as visual metaphors for the passing of time. Sharon McGunigle has found literally dozens of period costumes, from 1970s polyester to prim and proper late 1950s garb. Lisa D. Katz’s lighting, Krys Fehervari’s wig and hair design, Rebecca Kissin’s sound design, and Julie M. Smith’s prop design all deserve high marks, as does musical director Johanna Kent for the cast’s stellar vocal harmonies. The six-piece offstage orchestra led by pianist/conductor Patrick Burns provide fairly solid accompaniment, despite a number of off notes in the show’s overture and entr’acte.

As was true in last season’s Wit, Actors Co-op deserves a round of applause for once again challenging its subscriber base with edgier fare than may have been the case in seasons past. A musical that has much to say about life, love, and the toll success can pay on each, Merrily We Roll Along is musical theater that entertains and makes audiences reflect at the same time. With some of Sondheim’s best songs, Furth’s insightful book, and direction and performances to sing about, Merrily We Roll Along opens Actors Co-op’s 19th season with talent and style to spare.

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
September 18, 2010
Photos: Greg Bell

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