Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along once again proves, as has virtually ever other Musical Theatre Repertory offering reviewed here since Sunday In The Park With George six years ago, that a blackbox production entirely directed, designed, and performed by college students can easily rival the best of 99-seat-plan Los Angeles theater, that is if the students involved are part of USC’s illustrious School Of Dramatic Arts.

1480642_10152122959140139_2041920475_n Though MTR is hardly alone in reviving Sondheim’s 1981 gift to musical theater, rarely has a now popular standard had as inauspicious a beginning as Merrily We Roll Along, which lasted a mere sixteen performances in its original Broadway run.

Perhaps ’81 audiences didn’t take to the show’s reverse chronology, a storyline that begins at the end, in 1975, with its trio of longtime best friends permanently estranged despite their promising first meeting some eighteen years before.

The passage of time has proven this backwards approach to be a smart one. The musical’s final scene, set on a rooftop in 1957 as an orbiting Sputnik signals the beginning of both the space age and a triagonal friendship, proves all the more powerful and poignant because we’ve known from the beginning just how rotten it all turns out.

Sondheim opens Merrily We Roll Along with customary panache, as Broadway/Hollywood mega-composer Franklin Shepard (Taubert Nadalini), reflecting on the past twenty or so years, finds himself joined for the show’s infectious title song by the characters who have figured (or in the case of Merrily, will figure) in his life.

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 (Claire Adams) 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 (Myles Nuzzi) 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—first wife Beth Spencer (Jennifer Kranz), the third member of his nightclub act with Charley back in Greenwich Village circa 1960, and second wife Gussie Carnegie (Bella Hicks), the Broadway star he leaves Beth for and ends up cheating on.

Other supporting characters include bigwig producer Joe Josephson (Ryan McRee), ambitious TV journalist K.T. (Katie Porter, also playing Bunker), lawyer/deal maker Jerome (Kalev Rudolph, also Musician), aspiring screenwriter Ru (David Nicholson, also Mr. Spencer), and Hollywood starlet Meg Kincaid (Brooke Lewis, also Photographer), as well as Tyler (Judd York), Terry/Evelyn (Hajin Cho), Scotty/Mrs. Spencer (Jenna Bamberger), and Dory/Makeup Artist (Mady Mills).

Since Merrily We Roll Along’s lead trio age back from 40ish to their very early 20s, the show’s main characters can be cast as 20somethings, as 30somethings, or 40somethings, take your pick.

The NYC original opted for one of the youngest casts in Broadway history, with an entirely under-25 ensemble, and MTR does likewise, this being one instance where a college-age cast makes perfect sense. Yes, we need to stretch our imaginations to picture Franklin, Charley, Mary, Gussie, and Beth as the older versions of themselves in early scenes. At the same time, rarely have Merrily We Roll Along’s 1950s/60s scenes been more powerful than they are here, the cast’s youth adding immensely to the poignancy of Merrily’s “happy beginning.”

USC senior Brandon Baer won a Best Director Scenie last year for directing a pair of inspired MTR productions, Little Shop Of Horrors and tick, tick… BOOM!, a feat he could easily reprise this year with this past October’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and now Merrily We Roll Along. Once again revealing himself to be both a director with a vision and an “actor’s director,” Baer gives us a Merrily that is not only strikingly staged but beautifully performed by leads, supporting players, and ensemble members alike.

As the embittered, wisecracking Charley, Nuzzi proves that his Memorable Lead Actor Scenie for tick, tick… BOOM! was no fluke, the Trojan sophomore’s showstopping rendition of the manic “Franklin Shepard, Inc” deservedly earning him the evening’s loudest cheers.

The radiant Adams follows a pair of hilarious character cameos in Little Shop Of Horrors and tick, tick… BOOM! with her first MTR lead, and a stellar one it is, Adams taking Mary from overweight drunk to slender, starry-eyed innocent, with bonus points for her richly sung “Like It Was.”

Nadalini and Hicks make noteworthy MTR debuts. Nadalini’s Franklin benefits from the newcomer’s leading man good looks, charm, and topnotch vocals, while the delightful Hicks lets out her inner diva as Gussie to sizzling, terrifically sung effect. As for Kranz, the bubbly Christine of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels now gets to show off some fine dramatic chops as girl-next-door Beth, with special snaps to her sparklingly performed takeoff on the Kennedy clan in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” alongside costars Nadalini and Nuzzi.

(Reviewer’s note: Nadalini, Nuzzi, and Adams deserve and should be given the individual curtain calls they so richly deserve.)

Director Baer gives the Merrily We Roll Along ensemble (which includes Nuzzi’s lovely tick, tick… BOOM! leading lady, Cho, and Sweeney Todd’s memorable Tobias, Nicholson) plenty to do throughout, and they do it all-around splendidly, bringing to life a variety of New York sophisticates, with McRee’s hotshot producer Joe, Porter’s pizzazzy TV journalist, and Lewis’s sweetly bubble-headed starlet deserving special mention. (Jack Delac voices an unseen judge.)

Once again Anthony Lucca proves himself MTR’s go-to man for professional quality musical direction, in addition to conducting the production’s fine offstage orchestra—Max Naseck and Nathan Heldman on keyboards, Austin Chanu and Elena Sloman on reeds, Daniel Fox on trumpet, Michael Armstrong on trombone, Ari Giancaterino on bass, and Ryan McDiarmid on drums/percussion. (Lucca also appears as onstage pianist for Nuzzi’s sweetly sung “Good Thing Going” and its brief reprise as a duet with Nadalini.)

Baer and Lucca are ably backed by assistant director Allison Aoun and assistant musical director Naseck.

Justus Bradshaw’s simple but elegant scenic design allows Merrily’s narrative to move smoothly and effectively from locale to locale, and benefits from Liam Sterbinsky’s pro-quality lighting design. Costume designers Hannah Kim and Marly Hall have come up with one terrific period outfit after another. Danielle Kisner’s sound design further demonstrates the production’s all-around professionalism.

Merrily We Roll Along is produced by Victoria Pearlman and Alice Pollitt. Deborah & Michael Kranz and Tom & Noelle Hicks are executive producers.

Lea Branyan is stage manager, Jackson Strike assistant stage manager. Additional program credits go to technical director Austin Allen, properties master Milly Chiffer, scenic painter TJ Barry, running crew Christopher Brady Thomas, assistant sound designer/sound board operator Stephen Jensen, and poster designer Janelle Wen.

Merrily We Roll Along now makes it an even dozen Musical Theatre Repertory productions this reviewer has had the great good fortune to write about for StageSceneLA. It is one of MTR’s best, and that is saying something indeed.

Massman Theatre at USC.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2014

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