Not so merry production tells predictable story

by Beacon Staff • April 5, 2006

The current production of Sondheim's classic, performed at the Cambridge YMCA by the Longwood Players, is many things, but merry is most defintely not one of them.

The original Broadway show, which opened in 1981, received poor reviews and lasted only 16 performances.,Merrily We Roll Along has a most misleading title.

The current production of Sondheim's classic, performed at the Cambridge YMCA by the Longwood Players, is many things, but merry is most defintely not one of them.

The original Broadway show, which opened in 1981, received poor reviews and lasted only 16 performances. It was revisited successfully in 1985 and, after more revisions, was revived in 1995 by the York Theatre Company.

Over the years, it has been nominated for Olivier, Drama Desk and Tony Awards for both the score and performances.

Progressing in reverse chronology, Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of Franklin Shepard, who starts his career as an idealistic musician but later develops into a commercial Hollywood producer.

Beginning at a party celebrating his latest motion picture release, the play goes back in time through Frank's life, to when Frank and his best friend, Charley, are sitting on a rooftop, discussing composing a political musical show.

Filled with Sondheim classics like, "Not A Day Goes By" and "Our Time," Merrily We Roll Along carries a powerful message within its story about personal integrity and friendship.

The songs and characters are moving, and both are helped and harmed by the undeniably earnest performances of the cast.

The show, essentially a story of friendship, is undeniably sentimental. Frank (Don Ringuette), Charley (Michael Kripchak) and Mary (Katie Pickett) meet as struggling young adults in New York City and remain friends throughout the years.

Frank and Charley used to work together writing songs, until a recent event ended their relationship permanently. Sondheim's use of repeating melodies and lyrics throughout the show, contextualized with different emotions, evokes both sadness and nostalgia from the audience.

Any feelings of grief or sorrow, however, are quickly overshadowed by the overwrought, overplayed and overdone executions by the actors.

When Charley denounces Frank on national television through the song "Franklin Shepard, Inc," the true anger and betrayal is eclipsed by the underlying hysteria of the performance.

In the courtroom of their divorce, Beth (Shannon Muhs) answers Frank's question of, "Do you still love me?" with the melody of "Not a Day Goes By."

However, she performs the song with more fury and rage than the actual pain and regret that it represents.

The entire show revolves around Frank and his development-or lack thereof-as a man. One essential ingredient is missing, however: Frank is not that interesting or likeable.

He is charismatic and at times even charming, but the quieter moments of the show, orchestrated to show the strength of his character and why his friends love him so deeply, fall flat.

"That Frank," as his colleagues describe him in song, is simply not all that.

However, all is not lost. There are moments in the performance where Sondheim's true talent and wit shine through. The humor and intellect of his song "The Blob," sung by Gussie Carnegie, Frank's current Broadway star and soon-to-be lover (Frances Betlyon), describing the social and cultural elite of Manhattan, are still laughable, with the ensemble, clad entirely in black, moving across the stage as a group.

And Charley's rendition of "Good Thing Going" is wistful and honest, a welcome reprieve from the larger ensemble songs.

Another effective number is the lively melody, "Old Friends," sung by Mary, Charley and Frank in tribute to each other. It is spunky and easy to hum, but also carries darker undertones about the three amigos' real relationship.

They demand a great deal of each other, and whether they can forgive their shortcomings is questionable.

Although the play ends on a happy, optimistic note, this story does not have a happy ending. When Frank is at the commercial peak of his career, living in a mansion in California and adored by all, he admits that he is miserable and, given the choice, would give it all up.

Contrast that with Frank from 20 years earlier, sitting on a rooftop in New York City, staring at the sky, saying to Charlie, "We can change the world!"

The effect is bittersweet melancholy.

When he sings, "Feel what's happening, we're what's happening," you can't help but smile sadly, because you already know the end of his story.