Boston area fans of the work of Stephen Sondheim are doubly blessed right now. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is currently presenting "Gypsy," with additional lyrics by Sondheim.
White Rhino Report Review of "Gypsy"
The Huntington Theatre has just unveiled its much anticipated production of the rarely performed "Merrily We Roll Along." The history of this show is deserving of its own Blog piece, but in short, it has had a checkered past. The show, Directed by Hal Prince with Music and Lyrics by Sondheim, initially ran on Broadway in 1981 after only 52 previews and 16 performances. Audiences had a hard time relating to the method of telling the story of three friends, working backward from the end of their friendships to the beginning. Over the next several decades, several additional productions have been staged with changes aimed at solving the problems with the book. Recently, this musical has been very much on the mind of the theater world. Encores! staged a concert version at New York City Center in 2012 that was well received. Earlier this year, original cast member Lonny Price directed a fabulous documentary about the show entitled "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened." And now the Huntington picks up the gauntlet and offers us this engaging new production, based on a revision by Maria Friedman, who directed a revival in London in 2012. Ms. Friedman herself directs this production, bringing along from London Mark Umbers as Frank and Damian Humbley as Charley. They are joined by Eden Espinosa (Elphaba in "Wicked" on Broadway) as Mary Flynn.
The London production played to critical and audience acclaim, transforming this Sondheim musical from a cult favorite to one now appreciated by a broad audience. Sondheim himself praised the London production effusively, saying that "the whole was greater than the sum of its parts." That is high praise from a man who was the creator of many of those parts. I would expect a Broadway run to follow in the future. This version of "Merrily We Roll Along" won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, and I can see why. This is a brilliantly conceived version of the show, directed with love and care, and featuring a cast that represents the best of London, New York and Boston talent.
|Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley|
Merrily We Roll Along
Directed by Maria Friedman
Huntington Theatre Company
September 8 - October 15, 2017
Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
This is a show you do not want to miss. As Mr. Sondheim said, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," but the parts, in and of themselves, are pretty spectacular. The score features some of Sondheim's most beautiful and haunting melodies, harmonies, and syncopated rhythms. The staging is spectacular, the direction innovative, and the casting inspired. Let's begin with the troika of actors who lead this production.
- Eden Espinosa as Mary Flynn is a force of nature. Watching her become unhinged at Frank's Hollywood party in the opening scene, and then observing her rewind her dipsomaniacal life back to the innocence of watching for Sputnik in the New York sky of 1957 is a study in character development. Her strong singing voice blends wonderfully with those of Mr. Umbers and Mr. Humbley, especially in "Our Time," "Old Friends," and "It's A Hit."
- Mark Umbers takes his Frank on a similar backward journey from jaded to wide-eyed and hopeful. His chemistry with Ms. Espinosa and Mr. Humbley is one of the highlights of this production, allowing us to watch the carefully knit fabric of their threeway friendship unravel year by year. Mr. Umbers' rendition of "Good Thing Going" is a memorable moment in the show.
- Damian Humbley offers a version of Charley that will become the gold standard against which every other performance of this role will be measured. He stopped the show with his interpretation of the complex and difficult number, "Franklin Shepard, Inc." This is the pivotal moment in the story when Frank and Charley experience a rupture in their friendship from which they cannot recover. And it happens on live television. Our hearts break as we watch the wheels come off of the friendship as Charley explodes like a volcano that has been pent up for too long. The applause in appreciation of Mr. Humbley's performance of this song lasted for several minutes.
|Damian Humbley, Mark Umbers, and Rebecca Gibel|
These three superb artists are supported by a strong cast of musical theater actors. Boston audiences are familiar with several of the following:
- Aimee Doherty is powerful as Gussie, Broadway diva and Frank's second wife. She wears the gowns designed by Soutra Gilmour with a grace and seductiveness that is a wonder to behold. We get to hear a bit of Ms. Doherty's lustrous voice when she reprises "Good Thing Going"as the 11 O'clock number in the show that Frank and Charley wrote as a star vehicle for her.
Mark Umbers and Aimee Doherty
- Another veteran of Boston stages is the fabulous Jennifer Ellis, who plays Frank's first wife, Beth. One of the most poignant highlights of this musical is the contrast between the two versions of "Not A Day Goes By," that Beth sings. The life settings are dramatically different - bitter ending on the one hand and blushing bridal hope on the other hand: "Something old and something new." I almost needed a second handkerchief after the journey that Ms. Ellis took us on with these two versions of the song.
Jennifer Ellis and Mark Umbers
- Christopher Chew plays Joe, Broadway producer and Gussie's third husband. Mr. Chew is someone I have seen on stage many times, yet he so completely submerges himself into the character of Joe that I did not recognize him until someone pointed out to me at Intermission that it was Mr. Chew in the role. We see him go from pathetic beggar to braggadocious blowhard as the story lurches backward. It is a strong performance.
- The role of young Frank alternates between Camerone Levesque and Brendan Cole O'Brien.
- Patrick Varner is wonderful as the vainglorious yacht owner who sweeps Frank away after his bitter divorce from Beth. In his other ensemble roles, he gets to wear some fun and outlandish costumes.
- Amy Barker is Beth's mother, and Robert Saoud is her father. They are appropriately off-putting in their dismissal of Frank's chances at success. Ceit Zwell is Charley's wife, Evelyn.
- Maurice Emmanuel Parent is memorable as the afro bedecked newscaster. He is joined on camera by Rebecca Gibel.
- Other members of the excellent ensemble as Jessica Kundla, Pablo Torres, Craig Walezkao, Morgan Kirner, Caleb Damschroder, Bransen Gates, and Carla Martinez.
The Huntington Theatre has made a commitment to stage all 15 Sondheim musicals over the course of several seasons. "Merrily We Roll Along" is the third in this series. I hope I will be around to enjoy all twelve that are in the pipeline. What a delicious treat for Boston audiences to anticipate. That promise alone should be enough to prompt you to subscribe to a season at the Huntington.
All of the individuals and organizations responsible for bringing this stunning production to life in Boston can proudly proclaim, "It's Our Time"!
Huntington Theatre Website