Merrily We Roll Along
Who Syracuse University
Where Storch Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St, Syracuse
When Through Oct. 7
Review by Josh Austin
It’s safe to say the ever-clichéd line that “all good things must to come and end” after watching Merrily We Roll Along. It doesn’t matter that the only palpable “good things” were recognized over two decades ago.
Syracuse University drama department’s first show of its season is the classical calamity Merrily We Roll Along. In 1981, the musical ran on Broadway for a mere 16 performances. Since then, the show has been revived but often left with lukewarm praises. The question is, why couldn’t Stephen Sondheim and George Furth make it work, and, why is not working in revivals? Many have suggested that the show has not grown up. The audience meets characters that are unexplainably driven, but the motivations are never seen.
Although this show is not regarded as one of Sondheim’s best, it still shows off the musical genius of the composer. The whimsical score is layered with ripe bitterness where the audience enters a highbrow showbiz realm where dreams are high and personalities are low. SU’s production of Merrily contains all the elements of a fine performance. Director Brian Cimmet filled each scene with tangible rigidity, masked in false smiles and intentions. The cast offers up a production worth celebrating both the success and failures of the Hollywood glam they all have to come to despise.
The gimmick: The show goes backward in time from 1976 to 1957, watching three best friends regress from self-sabotaging burned out socialites to unknown idealists. This show is set up like Sondheim’s newly beloved Follies. Four mature friends are fixed in their youth, unable to escape what’s become of them. Perhaps, Sondheim was ahead of his time writing tension-filled lyrics that are veiled as delightful songs.
No matter, Merrily could still be praised as a snapshot of flamboyantly gritty, theatrical realism. Starting in 1976, Franklin Shepard (Kyle Anderson) and his wife Gussie Carnegie (Callie Baker) are throwing a party celebrating Shepard’s latest film. At the peak of his career, Shepard is now an accomplished lyricist and producer. Dealing with his alcoholic best friend, Mary Flynn (Avery Epstein) and the absence, but don’t mutter his name, of his former best friend Charley Kringas (Dan Reardon), Shepard is, sadly, now where he wants to be: rich and famous, with a hot wife and swanky pad.
As the audience is taken back in time, motives are somewhat revealed and the three best friends who tried to keep each other together are driven apart. With a desire for fame, money and still maintain some dignity, the trio is grounded from start to finish always hankering for something more. In the good ‘ol days of ’57 when they wanted to kick start their careers to the present when they want everything back to the same good ‘ol days. Like a Greek tragedy, they are their own villains.
The cast of Merrily has a tough job. They need to be able to secure the backward journey from desperate to incredibly hopeful, all the while showcasing the swinging, sexy ’60s to the innocent ’50s. Each character is constantly dealing with the hang-ups of growing pains when it comes to making a living, starting a family and building a career. It is at the start of the musical that the audience sees what these hang-ups have done to them.
The three friends are trodden with anxiety throughout the show. Shepard and Kringas are trying to sell their musical and Flynn, a wannabe writer. They cheer each other on to success all the while misguided by the glossy, snobbish life of fame. The actors composed nice characters to interact with each other. Epstein gave a comical, but lovable performance as the acid-tongued spit fire with an insatiable appetite for drink. The two male leads painted delirious pictures of best friends separated by the desire to earn money while not selling out.
Baker plays a driven actress that strives on power and money as the lusty Carnegie. Yet, at the start of the show, although her attitude is less than admirable, her character is vulnerable. Carnegie portrays an interesting arch, one that is most venerated among the rest of the characters.
Exposition, the driving force of this show, is also given in glimpses on a billboard. The billboard, high in the New York City skyline shows pictures of the trio together, glimpses of the fame accrued and the heartbreak that follows in each year.
Director Brian Cimmet and set designer Sang Min Kim portray the NYC skyline throughout the show. The faded buildings are layered on each other with a rusty Coca-Cola billboard and the small, glorious sign of Broadway seemingly just a block or two away. The skyscraper buildings tower over the rooftops of the set.
By the end of the show, the audience meets three exceptionally talented youngsters. Yet, the plot doesn’t answer why these characters are driven to do anything. Shepard’s future relationship with his son seems more tedious to the show than anything else. The end doesn’t solve the beginning. The palpable emotion, however, is knowing what is to become of these kids as they roll along.