“Most Friends Fade”: Ringwald’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’
FERNDALE, Mich.–Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along. The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.
So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.
Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies. And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, as in “Company,” but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).
The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.
As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.
I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.
The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.
The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. The video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.
The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by The Kardashian family.
As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number. Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.
Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George, “After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.
Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.