Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG by the Porchlight Theatre, Chicago

     As is sometimes the case with Sondheim musicals, the best of the always problematic MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is in the score. The talky book, radically repaired since the show's disastrous, short Broadway run in 1981, still doesn't work. I think of the show as Sondheim's ALLEGRO, the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical flop. Hammerstein was a surrogate father and mentor to the teenage budding composer-lyricist and Sondheim was fascinated with the making of ALLEGRO. Both ALLEGRO and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG are musicals about the loss of ideals, about selling out. Sondheim's score has also been revised considerably since the short run at the Alvin Theatre. Michael Weber's production for the Porchlight Theatre (Associate Directio nand Musical Staging by Christopher Pazdernik), makes more sense than any production I have seen of this show but still doesn't solve the show's basic problems.
     For those who aren't familiar with the show, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (based on a 1930s play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), tells the story of Franklin Shepard from youthful idealism to great success bought by personal compromises. In the musical, Shepard moves from being an extremely talented composer of Broadway musicals to a successful Hollywood mogul. The show assumes that Hollywood success is "selling out." The gimmick of the original play and the musical is that the story is told backward from Franklin in Hollywood in 1980 to him and his best friends on a New York rooftop in 1957 watching Sputnik fly overhead. Then Frank was an idealistic composer with his two best friends, lyricist Charlie Kringas and writer Mary Flynn. During the quarter century the show covers, Frank loses both his best friends and two wives. The show wants us to see Frank as a heartless sellout and his two best friends as his lost conscience. The problem is that Charlie is a kvetch and Mary a self-pitying drunk. They both make a point of humiliating their supposed best friend in public. I can't help feeling the Frank is well rid of them. Is he really so bad? Like Bobby in COMPANY (also book by Furth), Frank's a charming, good-looking cipher, more defined by the people around him than by the book writer. He doesn't even get character-defining songs. He's more sung about than a singer. As for Mary and Charlie, they only make sense if they're both in love with Charlie but, as with COMPANY, Sondheim and Forth, both gay, want to skirt around Charlie's desire for Frank. Without it, all his ravings just seem ill-tempered. Charlie's wife and family are invisible. Frank is the most important person in his life. As for Frank's wives, he says himself that he should have said "No." The marriages were mistakes from the start.
     Sondheim's score contains some gems and gets better as it goes along. I could do without the nightclub act the characters perform in the early 1960s, a satire on the Kennedys. It's too long and not really very good satire. There was a lot better stuff being performed in cabarets during the Kennedy years.
     The Porchlight directors gave the show a new frame. At the opening and closing we see Frank an old man in the present, sitting alone in a wheelchair, watching one of the movies he produced. As the end credits roll, Frank recalls his life. The periods of time are defined by projections of headlines and television clips. The cast are fine actors and singers. Jim DeSelm is handsome and charismatic but can't make Frank more than the cipher Furth wrote. That's not his fault. He makes more of the part than the other Franks I have seen. Neala Barron makes Mary too pathetic. This is a woman who has been a successful writer. We have to believe that Frank just doesn't see that she should be his wife--but the show gives us no reason for him to love her. Matt Crowle wasn't as much of a irritating kvetch as the last Charlie I saw in London. He's a winning performer. Still I ask, as I do every time I see this show, what do Mary and Charlie want from Frank? Basically they want things and people not to change. "I want it the way that it was," Mary sings. I always find myself on Frank's side. Charlie at least moves on after his break from Frank and becomes a successful playwright.
     MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG isn't as meretricious as ALLEGRO. There we're supposed to believe that small town life is the only good life, that success in the Big City is always a bad thing. This from two successful New Yorkers! In MERRILY, too, success means selling out, particularly if it's Hollywood success. Is there a bit of sour grapes in this attitude?
     Kudos to the fine ensemble and terrific band. This is my first Porchlight show. If this is their usual level of quality, I'll be back.

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