Broadway couldn’t do it any better than the breathtaking revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along now playing at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts, not unless they too could get recent Tony nominee Michael Arden on board to direct with the same originality and flair he brought to last season’s Spring Awakening or come up with a cast as spectacular as the one at the Wallis.
Recounting a two-decades-long three-way friendship in backwards chronology, the 1981 ground-breaker opens with longtime best chums Franklin, Charley, and Mary irreparably estranged, then flashes back step-by-step from 1975 to the innocence and promise of their first meeting some eighteen years before, a potentially problematic approach that may have contributed to the original production’s under-two-month Broadway run.
Arden makes this high concept work by reconceiving Merrily as a memory musical, one in which Broadway composer Franklin (Aaron Lazar), his lyricist partner/best friend Charley Kringas (Wayne Brady), and the duo’s longtime bff Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino) live, laugh, love, and experience loss under the observing eye of their 20something selves (Max Chucker, Doran Butler, and Jennifer Foster in a tip of the hat to Sondheim’s Follies).
Arden’s Merrily proves innovative too in reflecting the racial diversity of mid-20th-century New York City, where a young African-American lyricist could see his name in Broadway lights, where a Broadway goddess like Gussie Carnegie (Saycon Sengbloh) could be a performer of color, where blacks and whites and Asians and Jews and WASPS could intermingle and thrive in a city like no other.
Finally, Arden’s inventive vision allows choreographer Eamon Foley to strut his stuff in a musical few would ever have called “dancy.”
Based on a 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same name, Merrily We Roll Along first takes us to a party at Frank’s ritzy Bel Air mansion circa 1975, a Hollywood shindig peopled by “movers” and “shapers” like the now drunk-and-disillusioned Mary Flynn (but conspicuously minus Charlie), then escorts us back to a 1973 a talk show interview where Charley’s patter-packed “Franklin Shepard Inc.” makes it abundantly clear that however close he and Franklin may once have been, these “Old Friends” can never again make it “Like It Was.”
As Merrily We Roll Along progresses, we not only get to know Franklin, Charley, Mary, and Gussie but also Franklin’s first wife Beth (Whitney Bashor), whose acrimonious split from her cheating hubby proves even more fractious at the Wallis when Franklin trades in the lily-white Texas heiress for a person of color.
Other characters include Gussie’s first husband (Amir Talai as Broadway producer Joe Josephson ), ambitious TV journalist K.T. (Melody Butiu), big-shot deal maker Jerome (Travis Leland), aspiring screenwriter Ru (Sandy Bainum), Hollywood starlet Meg Kincaid (Rachael Ferrera), and countless more.
Anyone who’s ever had a relationship go sour (be it a marriage, a friendship, or a professional partnership) will find much to identify with in Furth’s witty, biting book, and with Sondheim’s songs among his most lyrically and melodically complex, Merrily We Roll Along not only stands the test of time, at the Wallis it gets the award-worthy revival it so richly deserves.
Lazar’s Franklin anchors the production with Broadway charisma spiced with prickly charm, a quietly scene-stealing Brady lets his inner geek flag fly as Charley, and a pitch-perfectly cast Vivino digs deep into the decreasingly embittered Mary.
Giving Deena Jones a run for her money, Sembloh’s Gussie redefines divalicious, vocal chameleon Bashor morphs from a simply devastating “Not A Day Goes By” to the coloratura high notes of “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”, and you’d have to be meshugge not to want to embrace Talai’s cuckolded Joe.
Butiu’s Katie Couric-meets-Connie Chung K.T. stands out among featured players, though truth be told there’s not a weak link in Merrily’s cast of L.A. supertalents, one that also includes Eric B. Anthony, Kevin Patrick Doherty, Laura Dickenson, Brent Schindele, and pintsized charmer Maximus Brandon Verso as Frank Jr., with special snaps to dance stunners Butler, Chucker, and Foster, whose ubiquitous presence pays off—and then some—in a uniquely heartrending “Our Time” sung atop New York brownstone as Sputnik orbits the sky above.
Casting is by Beth Lipari, CSA. Sarah Daniels and Lyle Colby Mackston are swings. T.J. Kearney is production stage manager and Anne L. Hitt is assistant stage manager. Blake Silver is associate director.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey surrounds the Bram Goldsmith Theater stage with dressing-room tables where performers change from one striking Laffrey costume to another. Travis Hagenbuch’s dramatic lighting and Jeffrey Maloney’s era-perfect properties aid too in bringing Arden’s vision to impressively original life, and with musical supervisor Matt Gould, musical director Adam Wachter, and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier adding their own talents to the sight-and-sound mix, it’s easy to imagine this Merrily We Roll Along making the same Beverly Hills-to-Broadway transfer that Arden’s Best Revival Tony-nominated Spring Awakening did last season.
Take that, New York. Sondheim revivals don’t get any more brilliant than Michael Arden’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis.
Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
December 6, 2016
Photos: Dan Steinberg, Kevin Parry for The Wallis