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Great Armstong, Johnson, and Kaminski in “Merrily We Roll Along” – Ringwald (review) February 17, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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There’s a terrific cast romping its way across the (nearly bare) Ringwald stage in their current production of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (based on the play by Kaufman and Hart). I write this review from the viewpoint of having previously directed a production of this musical myself.

There’s not much to the problematic book: Charlie, Frank, and Mary are friends who meet on a rooftop in NY, become bosom buddies and watch each others mistakes in love, marriage, work, business, and ultimately part ways as bitter adults (all the way in their 40’s!). The catch is, the show runs backwards – starting in the 70’s and ending in the 50’s. It was so confusing for original Broadway audiences that they added sweatshirts with their character names on them and spiffy things like “Past Wife”, “Boss”, “Next wife”. It ran one week. The rewritten show was presented by the York Theatre Company in the early 90’s and that version has become somewhat of a success. The recent London revival of the show was a smash success and was telecast in the USA by Fathom.

The time period here is very well defined by some great projection work by Dyan Bailey, and some wonderful costumes by Vince Kelley. I think we can all agree that we want a pair of Frank’s pants. It all plays out on a nearly bare stage with some accents, though I have to admit I’m getting a bit tired of the “no set” approach for the last few musicals at Ringwald. Painted grey, everything looks eerie, the exact effect you dont want in the background for this already bitter material.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Sondheim has crafted his best score for this show. It was an instant smash recording when released in the late 70’s and most theatre folks of a certain age grew up having memorized every single one of these remarkable songs — the revisal adds many additional “explanatory sequences” which are neither here nor there.

It is very well musically directed by CT Hollis and the vocal work here is impressive across the entire cast. Directing falls pretty flat with a lot of standing around and basic moves; and choreography doesn’t impress though the cast performs their steps well, with the exception of “Hey Old Friend” which finally brings some life to the proceedings.

But what does make a solid impression is how good the performances here are. Kevin Kaminski is great as Charley, Kyle Johnson is a very strong Frank, and Ashlee Armstrong is outstanding as Mary (even if the requisite audience tears don’t fall in the otherwise heartbreaking marriage sequence because of the lack of isolation of characters, too much distance between them on stage, and too much movement in the background from the ensemble). Still, they are very fine performances and the show comes to life when the three are together. An artistic decision was made to leave the three of them on the rooftop by themselves at the end of the show without the ensemble – it underlines the central triad, but I miss seeing the youthful enthusiasm of the entire cast on stage at the end as written.

A few other liberties have been taken with the show, some for the better (goodbye Frankie Jr) and some just head-scratching odd.

Other great performances are created by Liz Schultz who is a wonderful sharp-as-a-tack-comic-timing Gussie and Jordan Gagnon as Beth. The ensemble as a whole is very good, and my favorite stage moment was probably Matthew Wallace’s spot-on lounge piano player.

I know this book inside and out, so my experience was probably different from most. If you don’t know the show at all, its a great introduction to this work – one of Sondheim’s rare failures that has taken on a life of its own. Just don’t expect a revelatory experience, and there isn’t much of a payoff when its all said and done.  But revel in these remarkable performances as they roll along in a show itself that occasionally demonstrates sputters, fits, and starts.

Recommended.

Merrily We Roll Along continues at the Ringwald Theatre through March 19th. 22742 Woodward  Ave, Ferndale, MI tickets and more information at: ringwald.com

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