For the opening of its third season, The Music Theatre Company (MTC) clearly threw its all into staging Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, a rarely produced musical about the moral downfall of a successful Broadway composer.
Because of its frustrating protagonist and pessimistic ending, Merrily We Roll Along is far from the most fun musical in Sondheim’s vast repertoire. Handled by the right people, however, like the ensemble gathered by MTC founder and director Jessica Redish, and it can be an entertaining experience, even if it is a downer.
A bit of clarification is in order: Merrily is by no means a bad musical in terms of score, lyrics or story. In fact, it’s remarkable for its experimental narrative structure, telling the story of a man’s career from inglorious end to optimistic beginning. Though the story is told in an interesting, novel way, there’s a unavoidable problem to this approach: If the resolution of the play is actually the origin story then that means the conclusion, which is necessarily high-drama, comes at the opening. As a result, the play starts with melodrama and gradually chills out from there.
In the opening scene, theater composer-turned Hollywood sellout Franklin Sheppard (Jarrod Zimmerman) has an epic meltdown during a Bel Air dinner party. His sliminess, called out frequently by his alcoholic old friend Mary Flynn (Jessie Mueller), is gradually revealed to be motivated by his estrangement from his son (second-grader Gabriel Stern) as well as his collaborator and former best friend Charlie Kringas ().
Franklin is also having some marital tensions with his bombshell of a second wife, Gussie (Stephanie Herman), a Broadway actress with the looks of Marilyn Monroe and just as many failed marriages.
Heading back in time toward John F. Kennedy's and Dwight Eisenhower’s America, we see how the well-intentioned Franklin “said yes when he should have said no,” and ended up trading his original idealism for fame and fortune, along the way betraying Charlie and Mary and his first wife, Beth (Dara Cameron).
Schmuckler and Mueller are both brilliant as the supporting wheels of this friendship tricycle, and Herman is great as the wrench that makes it all fall apart. Zimmerman's performance is outstanding as well, though he could consider taking it down a notch in the opening scenes. His cries of agony prepare the audience for a soap opera at first, but as the play travels back in time Zimmerman gets the opportunity to showcase his talent as his character anguishes while making one wrong decision after another.
The music, directed by Ian Weinberger, is overall more serviceable than stellar due to a somewhat noticeable lack of big, catchy numbers. Merrily is something of a talky, drama-heavy production more interested in rounded characterizations and experimental storytelling than showstoppers. There are, however, a few flashes of occasional musical brilliance in numbers such as “Franklin Sheppard Inc,” “It’s a Hit” and a comedic song about the Kennedys called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.”
What is memorable about the music, however, is not its catchiness but how it reflects the story’s same sense of experimentation. There are a lot of interesting sound cues and incorporation of non-musical sounds such as telephones, tape recorders and idle party banter (such as “The Blob,” one of the best ensemble songs). In “Franklin Sheppard Inc.,” Schmuckler manically re-enacts his partner’s work habits and shameless ladder climbing by singing phone call and typewriter noises. The gag makes the song more engaging and the keeps the scene light and zany, quite a feat considering the scene is one where a friendship is painfully collapsing into a heap.
The problem with Merrily, which neither the cast nor director can do anything about, is that no matter how likable Franklin becomes in his youth, we still know that he ends his life a big jerk. Though I respect Sondheim and Furth (or, more accurately, the original 1934 writers Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman) for not putting a neat bow on this fairly experimental story, the real reason for seeing Merrily is not because the play is so uplifting, but because it's an excuse to experience MTC's young talent as they successfully pull off an interesting, difficult work.
Merrily We Roll Along runs until May 1 at The Music Theatre Company, 850 Green Bay Rd. Curtain times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Additional matinees will be held at 3 p.m. April 15 and April 30. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.