Merrily We Roll Along

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Merrily We Roll Along at the music theatre company

Book by George Furth

Based on the original play by

George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart

Directed and choreographed by Jessica Redish

Produced by The Music Theatre Company

At  Karger Center, 1850 Green Bay Road in Highland Park.

“Something is stirring, shifting ground…we’re the movers and shapers…you and me…up to us now to show ‘em…we’re what’s happening…someday just began!” -lyrics from “Our Time”

Smart, tuneful revival of the failed 1981 Sondheim musical adorns the intimate Karger Center Theatre that once was the home of Apple Tree Theatre

It is so refreshing to witness a director and a cast of top young Equity talents from The Music Theatre Company take over and embrace a failed work and make it into a wonderful evening of musical theatre. That is exactly what awaits you in Highland Park with  director Jessica Redish’s smart remounting of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Don’t let any memories of past productions of Merrily stop you from enjoying this superb production. The stage craft, the excellent performances, and the marvelous chorus blended together to create a most engaging and heartfelt musical.

Merrily We Roll Along at the music theatre company

Merrily We Roll Along follows the story of three friends, not as a memory play, but as a moving backward operetta. Boasting one of Sondheim’s innovative scores, Merrily We Roll Along traces their lives from the end to the start of their careers. It is an updated (to the ‘50’s through ‘70’s) version of the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  The story revolves around Franklin Shepard (Jerrod Zimmerman in an outstanding performance) who, having once been a talented composer of Broadway musicals, has now abandoned his friends and his songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood films. Like the play, the musical begins at the height of his Hollywood fame and goes back in time, showing snapshots of the most important moments in Frank’s life that shaped the man that he is today.

Merrily We Roll Along at the music theatre company

One of the elements that swiftly moves the story backward is the stealth use of the chorus that sings terrific harmonies while change the set and announcing the current timeline. This device added clarity and depth to the production. The intimacy of the small thrust stage at the Krager Center allowed the cast to sing without the aid of amplification.  The terrific singers didn’t need mics since they  projected and enunciated so well that the excellent Sondheim songs landed effectively.

The talented cast respects Sondheim’s clever, tuneful score.  Why Merrily flopped on Broadway is legendary. The word was that Hal Prince’s vision was too avant-garde and the use of reverse chronological order confused the audience. Several miscast singers also butchered the score which didn’t help much. Merrily is a chamber piece that needs an intimate space such as the Karger Center.

I’ve always liked the sound track featuring many Sondheim songs. Jerrod Zimmerman totally engages us as Franklin Shepard, the leading character.  Zimmerman commands the stage with his golden voice and charisma and acting chops. Alan Schmuckler as Charles Kringas, Frank’s lyricist, has empathy to spare, a sardonic smile and a most effective talent for nailing the emotions of a song. His expert rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” was a treasure. Jessie Mueller, one of Chicago’s top leading ladies, is terrific as Mary Flynn, the third party  to the friendship. We witness three likeable creative allies who journey backward in an attempt to find out how their friendship fell apart. Songs like “Old Friends,” “Growing UP” and “Now You Know” give us profound insights into their pursuit of happiness and its consequences. Dara Cameron’s haunting “Not A Day Goes By” laments her lost love. I liked Stephanie Herman’s performance depicts the sexy, self-centered Gussie. The chorus produced sweet harmonies and the small four person band, lead by Ian Weinberger, sounded fine. I particularly like the Vaudeville revue number “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” (a parody of the Kennedy’s) by Zimmerman, Schmuckler and Mueller and the “It’s a Hit” featuring Jerry Galante and the friends

The backward movement toward the friend’s youthful optimism lead to two fabulous Sondheim musical gems – the “Opening Doors” song cleverly speaks to every “would-be” writer and composer’s angst.  The show ending “Our Time” number is an anthem to the dreams and aspirations of all youthful creative souls. This inspirational ode to artistic dreamers leaves us with hope that we can, indeed, make today ‘our time,’ if we take action. Merrily is a cautionary tale for us to be aware of the pitfalls of success.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 7, 2011

Jeff Recommended

For full show information, go to the Merrily We Roll Along page at TheatreinChicago page.

At the Krager Center, 1850 Green Bay Road, Highland Park, IL, call 847- 570-4900, www.themusictheatrecompany.org, tickets $30, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Additional matinees will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 15 and Saturday, April 30, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission, through May 13, 2011

Here is the fabulous anthem to all artists: “Our Time”