Thursday, September 23, 2010

Merrily We Roll Along Shines

There are things you can’t take back in life. Words carelessly hurled in a fit of anger and actions taken without consideration of the consequences often lead to regret later when the fallout is irreparable. Never is the damage more heartbreaking than when it causes the loss of true friends and the abandonment of one’s early dreams.

How does it happen? When does it disappear? How can you get so far off track? Why don't you turn around and go back? Where is the moment?

Merrily We Roll Along
Gina D'Acciaro and Brent Schindele
Photo: Greg Bell

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, now playing at Actors Co-op in Hollywood, asks these questions in a complex story of three friends told backwards from 1976 to 1957.

Franklin Shepard is a successful Hollywood film producer whose first love was writing music. His dream was to write Broadway musicals with his friend Charley, a gifted playwright who simply wanted to create great art. Mary, also a writer and the third member of the trio, dreamt of writing a book and becoming a famous author, all the while enamored with Frank.

When we meet them at the beginning of the show it is clear that their relationship, which once meant more to them than anything, has become nothing more than a casualty on the bloody road to success.

Director Richard Israel’s production swirls into action, landing as a spectacular Hollywood party at Frank’s posh Bel Air mansion. Mary is resentful, grossly overweight, and alcoholic. Charley is permanently absent, and Frank is enjoying the bitter taste of success among the shallow “movers and shapers” that now make up his innermost circle.

Subsequent scenes dial back the years revealing specific events that forever changed the path of these three individuals; the chance meetings, fleeting moments of joy, missed opportunities, lies and silence. The final scene takes us back to the beginning as the three first come together atop a roof, watching Sputnik circling the earth – a bittersweet moment now with our knowledge of what’s to come.

Merrily We Roll Along
Leslie Spencer, Brent Schindele and Matt Bauer
Photo: Greg Bell

Israel has crafted an intelligent, seductively appealing production that is intensely satisfying as it reveals its secrets. The cast is terrific, with Brent Schindele, Matt Bauer, and Leslie Spencer stepping into the roles of pals Frank, Charley and Mary. The three actors have a dynamic connection onstage and voices that make songs like “Old Friends,” “Good Thing Going” and “Opening Doors” spring to life. A Sondheim lyric can break your heart like no other and Merrily is filled with some of the best.

Schindele allows us to see the scars of loss underneath Frank’s charming “have it all” exterior, turning him into a man we can empathize with, rather than despise. Bauer is unforgettable in “Franklin Shepard, Inc” one of the highlights of the evening, and Spencer’s downward spiral will make you want to cry.

Frank’s loves include Gina D’Acciaro who shines as Gussie, his glamorous second wife, once a plain Jane secretary until producer Joe Josephson (the always interesting John O’Brien) transformed her into a star. After pursuing success with a vengeance she finds that, even at the top, she is no more secure than before.

Selah Victor is Frank’s first wife, Beth, who divorces him when she learns of his affair with Gussie. She was originally a member of Frank and Charley’s nightclub act and the trio are delightful in a satirical take on the Kennedys, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” And Rory Patterson plays Meg, the self-indulgent young starlet who steals Frank’s heart from an older Gussie.

The remaining cast members - Michael Covert, Catherine Gray, David Greenman, Dominic Leslie, Sam Melnikov, Ben Ryan, and Stephen Vendette – are featured throughout in a number of character roles and cameos that add depth to the production.

Israel also uses his ensemble in a characteristically unique way during the Scene Transitions, moving panels, set pieces and props as part of the action. The effect is stunning with each scene effortlessly settling into place, as if by magic.

John Todd’s clever choreography and Stephen Gifford’s sleek set design deserve special mention, while musical director Johanna Kent does beautiful work with a difficult Sondheim score. If you can’t understand the words to the songs their effect is lost and thankfully the cast shines due to her attention to detail.

The outstanding design team also includes Sharon McGunigle (costumes), Lisa Katz (lighting), Rebecca Kessin (sound) and Julie Smith (props). Merrily We Roll Along is produced by Heather Chesley.

A Sondheim musical will always take you on a journey and Actors Co-op’s Merrily We Roll Along delivers on that promise of discovery tenfold. The show runs through October 24 in the Crossley Terrace Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street in Hollywood, on the grounds of Hollywood Presbyterian Church. For ticket information visit

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