Friday, April 24, 2015

Emerson Stage Presents Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" - A Rare Treat On The Cutler Majestic Stage - Through April 25 Only

The evening began with a presentation by the Emerson College community to Broadway star and Tony nominee Norm Lewis.    How fitting.  Mr. Lewis recently played the title role in "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.  "Merrily We Roll Along" is full of phantoms of failed friendships and failed marriages.

And then the orchestra sounded the first notes of the rousing Overture to Stephen Sondheim's seldom-performed musical "Merrily We Roll Along."  And what an orchestra!  Under the direction of Jonathan Goldberg, this 12 piece combo anchored a terrific professional-level production with Emerson students serving as the cast and crew.  The orchestra sound was among the best I have heard on a Boston stage - or, technically - under a Boston stage! I knew we were in for a terrific evening of musical theater.

One of the reasons that this musical is not often performed is that it was a flop on Broadway. The book uses the technique of telling the story of three friends in reverse chronological order.  Broadway audiences were apparently not ready for that kind of innovation, and the show closed after only 16 performances.  Many tweaks and re-writes later, the revised version won an Olivier Award in London.  It is this revised version that the Emerson Stage team is presenting with great success. Directing a show of this nature requires teaching the cast members to drive the story forward while looking in the rear view mirror.  The actors have to age backwards, becoming less worldly, less cynical, less jaded as they grow younger with each scene transition.  Scott Lafeber has done a fabulous job in working with this gifted ensemble, and the story is believable as it unfolds and rewinds.

Virtually everything about this production is Broadway quality.  The versatile set composed of multiple levels of sliding panels and elements that fly in and out of the stage is brilliantly designed by Charles E. McCarry.  There must be hundred of costume changes, and each piece designed by M.A. Walsh speaks eloquently of the period being represented in that particular scene.  Lighting by Scott Pinkney and Sean Pieroth, Sound by Arshan Gailus and Projections by Christopher Ash all enhance the telling of this heart-breaking story of the consequences of selfishness on relationships..

The story revolves around the career of composer turned movie mogul Franklin Shepherd and his bosom buddies, Charlie Kringas and Mary Flynn.  When the play begins, everything is falling apart. Franklin is throwing a Hollywood party to celebrate the opening of his latest movie.  In the midst of the celebration he breaks up with his wife in order to take up with the film's starlet, and Mary, in an alcoholic rage, writes herself out of the script of Frank's life.  Charlie has long since departed the friendship after a fatal schism opens between the former partnering composer and his lyricist.  As action rewinds in time, we see how the fissure began to form and we eventually go back to the night in 1957 when the three friends bonded on the roof of a NYC apartment building to try to spot Sputnik.,

There is an important element of the story that is greatly and subtly enhanced by the scenic design. One of Frank's issues is that he has abandoned many of his first loves to chase fame and fortune.  One of those loves is the piano.  As the play opens, an old upright piano is dangling by ropes from the top of the stage - hovering downstage right.  As the action begins, the piano is retracted back into the space above the stage - emblematic of Frank's passion for piano evaporating into an ether of selfish ambition and betrayal.

The ensemble singing and movement are first rate, as Director Goldberg and Choreographer Jennifer Farrell have the groups that surround Frank move like blobs in various formations that hint at the vacuousness of their lives and values and adoration of the hot composer/producer.

Cast members include: principals Tyler Simahk, Michael Albert, Simone Les, Michelle Martinelli, Sam Weisberg and Danielle Bowen.

Cast of "Merrily We Roll Along"
Emerson Stage
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through April 25

Ensemble members are Kathryn Kilger, Brooke Farnum, Hayley Moir, Jamie Zeidman, Alexis Harter, Amy O'Neill, Claire Hilton, Talia Robinson, Dana Gates, Rob Yonkers, elix Teich, Ryan Juda, Joseph Keiserman, Andrew Flynn, Michael Lamar, Gian Raffaele DiCostanzo, Rhys Scheibe, Devin Cortez

Here are some of the highlights that stood out for me in the performance I attended.

  • Tyler Simahk as Franklin commands the stage from the first moment we see him seated at his piano plunking out a tune.  Ms. Simahk is the younger brother of Boston actor, Sam Simahk, who recently starred in the SpeakEasy production of "Big Fish."  It is clear that there is some strong creative DNA in the Simahk gene pool,  Tyler will be graduating soon and heading to Maine for a professional role in Ogunquit Playhouse's upcoming production of "Sister Act."  He shines vocally whenever he sings, and the blend with Charlie and Mary in "Old Friends" and "Our Time" is vibrant and beautiful.  Even when not speaking, Mr. Simahk is effective, particularly in the scene when Frank and Charlie are being interviewed live on TV, and Charlie uses the occasion to tell the world what a bad partner Frank has become.  Tyler's slow burn, conveyed through ever-darkening facial expressions and body language, communicates as loudly and clearly as the actor's speaking and singing voice.
  • Michael Albert portrays Charlie.  His gorgeous singing voice and impressive acting chops are most strikingly on display in the scene I just described, singing the very difficult number "Franklin Shepherd, Inc."  The song is a tour de force performance.
Michael Albert as Charlie
Tyler Simahk as Frank
"Merrily We Roll Along"

Emerson Stage
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through April 25
  • The third horse pulling this doomed friendship troika is Mary Flynn, played by Simone Les. Her character must traverse a difficult reverse dramatic arc - going from an angry drunk who has given up on life and love to a perky young naif who is waiting for her dreams to go into orbit like the recently launched Sputnik that she observes as she and Frank and Charlie begin to orbit around one another. Ms. Les pulls off this difficult task with aplomb.  She is most poignant sitting by herself, lovesick for Frank, as she adds her third wheel vocals to the duet that Frank and his bride, Beth, sing - "Not A Day Goes By."
  • The role of Beth, Frank's first wife and first love, is played by Danielle Bowen.  The song mentioned above, " Not A Day Goes By" is one of Sondheim's most beautiful, haunting and brilliant.  It is sing twice in two diametrically opposite contexts. We first hear it when Beth sings it in despair outside the courtroom where she and Frank are divorcing and fighting for custody of their son.  We hear it again at their wedding, sung with hope and confidence by Beth and Frank, and with despair by Mary.  It is as brilliant a piece of writing that one can find in the Sondheim oeuvre.  Ms. Bowen has a soaring operatic soprano voice that captures all of the nuance of this powerful number.
  • Among the ensemble, I was impressed with Joseph Keiserman, who played Jerome, Frank's attorney.  It is not easy for a college age actor to portray an older character, but Mr. Keiserman carries himself in a way that he was believable as a thirty-something lawyer.  He has a fine singing voice to complement his strong stage presence.
I am not sure how many tickets remain for the final two performances, but if you are a fan of Sondheim, and want to witness the next generation of stage actors honing their craft, go on the website linked blow and get a ticket to see "Merrily We Roll Along."  This show and this production of it represent a rare treat for Boston audiences.



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