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Merrily We Roll Along

You wouldn't know this Sondheim musical was a legendary flop from the impressive staging at St. Ed's

Reviewed by Russell M. Dembin, Fri., April 11, 2014

Catching at dreams: (l-r) Scott Shipman, Rachel Dunk, Tyler Jones, and Brittany Allyson
Catching at dreams: (l-r) Scott Shipman, Rachel Dunk, Tyler Jones, and Brittany Allyson
Courtesy of Bret Brookshire

Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University, 3001 S. Congress, 512/448-8484
www.stedwards.edu/mmnt Through April 13
Running time: 2 hr., 35 min.

Merrily We Roll Along is considered one of the most legendary flops in musical-theatre history, but you might not realize it from the production running at Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical, based on the Kaufman and Hart play, sounds like a hard sell: We meet Franklin Shepard, a wealthy, conceited movie producer, and follow his story backward in time, observing how he abandoned his dream of being a theatre composer to get rich and famous, and in the process destroyed his closest relationships. So it may come as no surprise that Merrily's last full staging in Austin was a quarter-century ago, before most of this youthful cast was born. One reason the show is so rarely done is the association with its original 1981 Broadway outing, whose actors in their teens and 20s often lacked credibility playing their characters' older selves.

So how can a production with a largely student cast overcome these challenges? The numerous revisions over the years certainly help, and to combat the fact that the protagonist is unlikable when he's introduced, director Ev Lunning Jr. has taken a cue from the 2012/2013 London version: In the opening number, the cast circles Frank, singing at him in an accusatory manner while he stares ruefully at some paper in his hands – presumably, the script for the musical he'd promised to write with his ex-best friend and collaborator Charley Kringas. This sequence helps us want to learn how he "got to be here," and the circular movement capitalizes on the arena space to echo the rolling along of the show's title, as well as the ticking hands on the clock that plague Frank.

That the student performers succeed where their Broadway counterparts did not is a testament to their enthusiasm and dedication. The female leads display especially impressive singing and acting chops. As Frank's first wife, Beth, Rachel Dunk gives some of her lines a certain edge, bringing nuance to a role that's typically treated as more of an ingenue. Anna Vanston confidently handles the role of Gussie, the domineering secretary-turned-star and Frank's second spouse. Of particular note is Brittany Allyson as Mary Flynn, the alcoholic theatre critic and erstwhile novelist. She delivers Mary's wisecracks with gusto, while fully capturing the character's emotional depth. Guest Equity performers Scott Shipman (Frank), Tyler Jones (Charley), and Jarret Mallon (Joe) complement them nicely, with Jones inhabiting Charley's frustration with Frank while still earning our sympathy. Susan Branch Towne's costumes, which range from bell bottoms to stylish floral dresses to simple outfits in primary colors, help us keep track of the time period, and Lunning and his cast make sure the storytelling is clear. Early on, Frank laments, "I've made only one mistake in my life. But I made it over and over and over. That was saying 'yes' when I meant 'no.'" Fortunately for us, MMNT said yes. And meant it, too.

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