Reviewed by Tony Annicone
Huntington Theatre’s opening show of their season is “Merrily We Roll Along” Stephen Sondheim’s, musical of friendship and ambition. It is based on the 1934 play with the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. “Merrily We Roll Along” has a book by George Furth that opens in 1976 and travels back in time to tell the story of Franklin Shepherd, a successful Broadway composer who leaves his theatre and songwriting career behind him to become a Hollywood movie producer.
He betrays his two closest friends on the way up the ladder to fame and fortune. They look back on their relationship from 1976 to 1957 as the scenes move back in time to reveal what significant opportunities were squandered by Franklin’s quest for prominence, renown and money. Maria Friedman takes her talented cast on this interesting and entertaining journey to discover these bittersweet relationships of these characters from their faded present to their idealistic past, giving the audience a performance of superlative theatre at its best.
Maria’s strong direction can be witnessed not only in her bringing out the best in her 20 performers but also in her blocking of them in various scenes quickly, making this musical flow smoothly from scene to scene. She possesses a keen eye for detail and delivers a tightly honed show to be very proud of. Music director Matthew Stern brings out the superb voices of the cast while conducting and directing an incredible nine piece orchestra with the brass members excelling during it. Choreographer Tim Jackson creates several dance routines that the audience savors and appreciates as the cast performs his dance steps in perfect unison. Leading this cast is Mark Umbers as Franklin Shepherd. He delivers a tour de force performance with his grasp of the inner workings of this character. He goes from snide, cheating philanderer to young exuberant musician during the show, making the transition with ease. Mark has an incredible singing voice which he displays in several songs including “Old Friends”, “Growing Up” and “Good Thing Going” duet with Charley. The most poignant, moving and meaningful number is the closing song of the night, “Our Time” which expresses the hopes and dreams of college kids for a bright future. It touches everyone who has been there which leaves nary a dry eye in the house. Bravo on a job very well done as an unlikeable character.
Frank’s two close friends are played by Damian Hubley and Eden Espinosa. Damian plays the lyricist, Charley Kingras who gets dumped by Frank during a live broadcast on NBC. He sings how Frank has changed during a dynamic song with tongue twisting lyrics called “Franklin Shepherd Inc.” where one of the funny bits occurs when he complains about him on live TV. The counterpoint to this bitter song is done in Act 2 when they have their first backers audition and sing “Good Time Going” about how swell things are. A definite show stopper is the upbeat number “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”, telling the story of the Kennedys during the 1960’s segment. The Irish jig section of this number is hilarious. Damian excels at physical comedy, giving the role the skill and energy it needs. The last member of this trio, Mary is excellently played by Eden. She captures the inner longings of a woman who yearns for Frank, a man that she will never have. Eden has a fantastic voice which she displays in “Old Friends”, “It’s a Hit” and the show stopping “Not a Day Goes By” which she performs at Frank’s wedding to Beth. It displays Mary’s anguish at losing Frank to another woman. Eden also shows Mary’s comic side with gusto during the show, too especially with her drunken one liners in the first scene of the show. These three performers do a terrific job acting, dancing and singing this difficult Sondheim score.
The two wives of Frank’s are dynamite performers, too. Jennifer Ellis plays Frank’s first wife, Beth who isn’t even seen until near the end of the first act during the divorce trial. The dramatic entrance is highlighted by an angry version of “Not a Day Goes By”, one of Sondheim’s best and prettiest numbers and Jen makes the tears flow during this song. The pathos really flows in this scene when young Frankie calls out for his father as he is being dragged out of court by his grandfather. 10 year old Cameron Levesque who is a phenomenal actor at an early age, makes the tears pour out of your eyes profusely in this gut wrenching scene. He is a force to be reckoned with. Brendon O’Brien plays Frank Jr. at alternating performances. Later on you find out Beth is justified in her feelings for Frank because of his illicit behavior with his leading lady, a pattern that he follows throughout his life. Jennifer does a fantastic job, making the transition from angry ex-wife to devoted, supportive wife in 1962 and once again to dewy eyed young girl madly in love with Frank in 1960. Jennifer has a gorgeous soprano voice that soars off the charts in her numbers especially the “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” number. Aimee Doherty is marvelous as Gussie, Frank’s second wife. Gussie is a man eating bitch who uses every man in her life to gain fame and stardom. She is the person who leads Frank to destroy his friendship with Mary and Charley. Aimee handles the role with all the right moves from playing the damsel in distress to controlling mistress to shrewish wife. She sings the “Growing Up” numbers but Gussie never does. Aimee’s other songs are “The Blob” about the backers being like sponges absorbing everything they see while drinking, eating and smoking dope and “Good Thing Going On” which opens Act 2 with her clad in an exquisite evening gown. Gussie is punished in the first scene of the show when the audience discovers Frank is having an affair with his new leading lady, Meg Kincaid played by the gorgeous Jessica Kundla.
Christopher Chew plays the producer, Joe Josephson who gets used by Gussie during this time. He marries her, helps her become a star when she was only his secretary. Joe also helps her get a nose job, then when he loses his job depends on her for handouts. Christopher delivers the goods as this gruff, cigar chomping character complete with a Brooklyn accent. He displays his voice in the group number, “It’s a Hit.” I previously reviewed Christopher as Sweeney Todd. Some other standouts in this large cast are Rebecca Gibel as KT, a hard ass TV producer who gets put in her place by Charley and Robert Saoud and Amy Barker as Beth’s rich Southern parents who don’t want her to marry a musician. Kudos to Maria and her talented hard working cast and crew for doing marvelous work on this Sondheim musical. The company numbers “Merrily We Roll Along”, “That Frank”, “Now You Know” and “Our Time” are powerfully performed. So for an excellent musical treat, be sure to catch “Merrily We Roll Along” before it rolls out of town for good on October 15. Run do not walk to the box office before tickets are sold out. Tell them Tony sent you. Hopefully this musical will make its way to Broadway where it belongs!
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (8 September to 15 October)
Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA
1(617)266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org