Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: Michael Arden Reinvigorates Merrily We Roll Along at The Wallis

Donna Vivino and Aaron Lazar. Photo credit: Kevin Parry

When Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway in 1981, no one anticipated that it would be a flop. With a score by Stephen Sondheim and direction by Hal Prince, it should have been the next success in a series of highly successful collaborations by the two reigning kings of musical theatre, following such game changers as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd.

It had a young, energetic cast and a subject the writers knew well. But, in their final weeks of rehearsal and throughout its previews, the show faced problem after problem including cast and creative changes, a delayed opening, and plenty of negative word of mouth. By the time it officially opened, the stress of the whole experience would derail Sondheim and Prince's working relationship for more than 20 years.

Neither the critics nor the public embraced the show, the former being especially critical of George Furth's book - adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play of the same name - and the latter unable to accept the story's bitter tone and reverse storytelling. After 52 previews and 16 performances, Merrily closed.

It has been tweaked and revived over the years, its songs finding their way into the catalog of standards that can often be heard in cabaret performances. They are classic Sondheim, with rich insightful lyrics that capture the emotional ache of love and loss, and gorgeous melodies that haunt you long after you've heard them sung on stage.

It remains one of my favorite scores and I always look forward to seeing how a director handles the show's challenges each time I see a production. I may love it more than most because I do know the show so well but, for audience members who don't, it requires that they stick with it to the final curtain in order to get the beautiful payoff that lies at the end of the story (or should I say the beginning?). Without that, it can be easy to walk away from the show unfulfilled.

Aaron Lazar and Wayne Brady. Photo by Dan Steinberg

This month Michael Arden, director and artist-in-residence at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, ventures into Sondheim and Furth's jaded show biz world and offers up his take on the troubled musical. It's interesting to note that even this production went through its own setbacks when Wayne Brady (who plays Charley) came down with gout and was unable to perform on opening night.

The story unfolds like a series of snapshots marking significant turning points in the artistic climb and relationship collapse of three friends trying to make it in New York: Franklin Shepard (Aaron Lazar), a composer; Charley Kringas (Brady), a lyricist & playwright; and Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino), a budding novelist.

Because we first meet them at the end of their friendship in 1976 and work backward to 1957, the show has a built-in mountain to climb that can leave the audience behind if not careful. Franklin has become one of the movers and shapers, a Hollywood producer too busy to honor his commitments to writing partner, Charley, who has used up the last of his patience waiting. And Mary, secretly in love with Franklin since the moment they met, has never overcome her self-worth issues, instead ending up an alcoholic mess with a viciously caustic tongue.

Aaron Lazar (right) and the cast of Merrily We Roll Along

It can be hard to sympathize with any of them as they act out in anger, frustration, or just plain venom (although Brady's inherent likability and showstopping number "Franklin Shepard, Inc." early in the show gives us enough to care about him up front).

Luckily, Arden manages to carefully shape the jagged edges of their devastating trajectory within the overall arc of the show, and all three make the journey from end to beginning to devastating effect. Each is centered within his or her own universe and as they slowly pull back from spinning out of control to the crystalline moment when innocence first brought them together, it completes a circle that leaves a big impact.

This is a production that chews up your emotions, along with the characters', and spits them out until you find yourself somewhere inside their stories. Whether it's in the I-can-conquer-the-world moment Sputnik passes over the rooftops or in the shadows where the realization of what compromising your dreams has cost you, you're in there. I think that may be one of the best reasons to see the show, to check where you are on your own path while there is still time to make a course correction.

Vivino is heartbreaking as the glue that holds the three friends together and sings with such emotional color that she just about steals the show away from her co-stars. Brady adds a comic touch to his natural good-guy appeal that contrasts nicely with Lazar's self-absorbed neon executive. Together, they form the heart of the show, bursting and broken and everything in between.

Plus, they have what I consider to be one absolutely perfect moment in the production. It happens at the end of "Good Thing Going" as Brady sings the final bittersweet lyric, "We had a good thing going, going, gone." While the lovely, quiet legato line hangs in the air and the full impact of the words becomes clear, the lighting slowly shifts, isolating each of them from the crowd, and then fades to black. Lighting designer Travis Hagenbuch scores big with his delicate handling of that single instance. It is a photograph to remember in a production full of scrapbook-worthy images; fragile, elegant, and perfectly balanced in what it reveals about their relationships.

Saycon Sengbloh and Aaron Lazar. Photo by Kevin Parry

Songs, and their reprises, have purpose in this backward storytelling style and none of them is more powerful than the opposing versions of "Not A Day Goes By" sung by Frank's first wife Beth (Whitney Bashor) at the point of divorce, and later by Beth, Frank, and Mary when the couple marries. Saycon Sengbloh as Gussie, the former secretary turned glamour girl who breaks up their marriage and becomes Frank's second wife gets a dose of her own medicine when he later loses interest and begins an affair with a younger starlet. Her Act II opening number shows off Sengbloh's own star quality and a rich, creamy voice you could listen to all day.

One of the visual devices Arden uses to reinvigorate the show is a set of three dancers who portray younger versions of each of the main characters. Like ghosts of Christmas past, they weave in and out of scenes lending poignancy to the story line and interacting in the spaces between the action with the energy of inner children waiting to be let loose again. Eamon Foley's choreography is a playful combination of modern and lyrical moves, effortlessly executed.

Reconciling the shifting tones of the piece isn't always easy but Arden maneuvers through the changes with forethought, alternating the shrill, shallow duplicity of fame with an inexplicable search for meaning that speaks to something deeper. It may be a lot to ask of an audience but the journey is well-worth the effort and pays off handsomely in the end.

Aaron Lazar and Whitney Bashor. Photo by Kevin Parry

Nov 23 - Dec 18, 2016

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210

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