NY Music Review by Marilyn Lester
Merrily We Roll Along opened at the Alvin Theater in 1981 after 44 previews, and closed 16 performances later. Written by George Furth, with Stephen Sondheim providing lyrics and music, the piece was poorly received. Confused and disappointed audiences left in droves, unwilling to sit through a convoluted story that moved backward in time.
The musical is based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; the plot follows the rise to fame of composer Franklin Shepard (Claybourne Elder), who’s made it big in Hollywood. Along the way, Shepard has abandoned lyricist Charley Kringas (Harris Doran) and writer Mary Flynn (Lucia Spina), friends from back in the day when they were struggling young artists.
While panning the book, critics did praise Sondheim’s music – and it’s the music that’s propelled the show to have a long afterlife in revivals and concert versions. These tunes are among Sondheim’s richest – and most vocally challenging. Merrily’s music is not easy to sing, especially when there’s been limited rehearsal time! The cast of this concert version, some off book and some not, rose to the occasion without exception. Harris Doran especially excelled with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” “Old Friends,” was sung convincingly by the three principals, while the closing number “Our Time,” was poignantly delivered principally by Elder, with Doran and Spina and the ensemble.
The problematic nature of the show led to Furth and Sondheim’s blessing for subsequent productions with various changes. For the 1994 off-Broadway revival, for instance, Sondheim himself contributed new songs, such as “Growing Up,” sung at 54 Below by Eric Michael Gillett and Melanie Vaughan.
Over the years, Merrily We Roll Along has become, if not a cult classic, a show that has gathered fans in a new appreciation of its merits. Hosting the evening, Phil Geoffrey Bond, Director of Original Programing at 54 Below, provided insights, commentary and comedy at key points between musical numbers (Bond conceived and developed the show along with Gillett and Lucia Spina). The back-story proved not only entertaining, but connected the dots relating to the plot line.
Jackie Hoffman was on hand to provide her unique and hilarious comic relief in “Now You Know,” returning as an off-key and shrill auditioner in “Opening Doors,” singing along with Spina, Doran, Elder, Vaughan and Joe Goodrich. “It’s a Hit!” offered the “production number” of the evening, enthusiastically and energetically delivered by Spina, Doran and Elder, with Rob Maitner and Jessica Vosk.
Solo turns were performed by Nicholas Rodrigues with, “Good Thing Going,” Mandy Gonzales with “Not A Day Goes By,” and Donna Vivino with “Gussie’s Opening Number.” Lucia Spina also soloed on “Like It Was.” Each performer tackled the demands of Sondheim with relative ease through their individual singling styles.
The ensemble of 54 Sings Merrily We Roll Along featured Alison Grace Bradbury, Stephen Mitchell Brown, Leah Jennings, Eva Kantor, Charlie Stevens, Kathleen Stuart, and Robin West. In the full production of Merrily We Roll Along, this chorus sings reprises of the title song to transition the scenes. In this 54 Below concert version, the ensemble had the spotlight, opening the show with “The Hills of Tomorrow,” and delivering the title song “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Music Director and pianist was Mark Hartman, with Dick Sarpola on bass, and Larry Lelli on drums. Amazingly (particularly in the overture), Hartman’s arrangements allowed this rhythm section to sound like much, much more, with a full-bodied sound correctly balanced to support the large and varied cast of performers.
54 Sings Merrily We Roll Along was presented on May 11 at 7 PM and 9:30 PM. 54 Below, 254 West 54th St., 646-476-3551 www.54below.com