Arts, Features

REVIEW: “Merrily We Roll Along” is ultimately optimistic, despite context

Maria Friedman’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along” premiered Sept. 8 at Huntington Theatre Company and will run through Oct. 15. PHOTO BY VIGUNTHAAN THARMARAJAH/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

A spunky, poppy and inevitably toe-tapping overture fills the Huntington Avenue Theatre, aided by a nine-person orchestra so zealous it might as well be a pit of 100 musicians.

With an energetic cast of 20, “Merrily We Roll Along” is the Huntington Theatre Company’s third Stephen Sondheim musical and — like last year’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” which jumped centuries — the production rejects an easy-to-follow chronological order.

Instead, the show follows reverse chronological order, the complexity of the backward timeline clarified by an ensemble singing the dates as they delve deeper into the past. The overture gives way to the funk and opulence of a lively, glitzy party, where every head is turned towards a beacon of show-business charisma: Franklin “Frank” Shepard (Mark Umbers).

The year is 1976, but the setting of the party — a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque modular home — and the costuming of the cast — a few pointed collars, a pair of flares and only the occasional tie dye — are not ostentatiously psychedelic.

The Hollywood soirée, as most parties with alcohol are wont to do, ends in an explosive outburst from Mary Flynn (Eden Espinosa), an old friend dismayed by the severed relationships she witnesses at the gathering.

From there, “Merrily” backpedals through nearly two decades in search of the point at which the relationships began to tremor.

For most of the first act, it seems that this search is ruthlessly nihilistic as the characters stumble through conflict after conflict. Among the most brutal are a butting of heads between Frank and his collaborator, Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley).

Even so, the sharpened words hurled at one another aren’t entirely ruthless, the daggers blunted by humorous sarcasm.

The musical is peppered with comically sardonic jabs, with a few particular gut-busters in Charley’s resentful on-air tirade, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”

As a result, the more heart-wrenching tunes are not those of accusation but of remorse. “Not A Day Goes By,” in its first-act rendition as a solo by Beth Spencer (Jennifer Ellis), is tender and sorrowful.

The ballad is not so much an outburst as an outpouring, and it is a genuine point of rock-bottom distress that starkly contrasts more malice-driven or flamboyant numbers by Gussie Carnegie (Aimee Doherty).

Yet, by the second act, the backward momentum that initially spiraled downward in despair and conflict manages to guide the play through the abrasive present and on to an optimistic past. So capably, in fact, that the audience may very nearly forget the scandal-ridden conflict that preceded it.

Chipper, almost goofy numbers like “It’s a Hit” and “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” are lighthearted and delightfully fun. The excitement of these younger characters radiates out over the audience and helps to resolve the stress brought about by later-life conflicts in the first act.

Most noteworthy, however, isn’t the upbeat songs but the hopeful and eager ones — “Opening Doors” and “Our Time” are light enough to dance along to but are also weighted with the context of their later problems.

They are extraordinarily uplifting and serve as reminders that, perhaps, we all deserve to return to a former youth defined by brighter eyes and bushier tails.

Although many of the songs have the capacity to communicate the emotion of the moment in a much more striking and entertaining manner than spoken dialogue, the dialogue is not forgone in favor of filler music.

In other words, as far as musicals are concerned, “Merrily We Roll Along” is less, well, musical. There are several transitions aided not by key changes but dialogue unaided by a melody. But this doesn’t detract from the catchiness, of the soundtrack or the ability to detect recurring tunes. Rather, it lessens the potential for campiness and forced musical theatrics that can detract from some more “traditional” musicals.

Moreover, the articulate yet fluid combination of spoken dialogue and musical numbers makes “Merrily” a musical that may appeal even to those who claim to dislike the genre, or to those who are just being introduced to musical theater. Director Maria Friedman seems to have mastered this balance with the production, making it all the more enjoyable.

While the actual content of the musical should most certainly be attributed to Sondheim and George Furth  — whose book of the same title inspired the musical — Friedman’s ability to take a leisurely stroll along the line of subtlety adds impact to large numbers and expertly highlights the production’s broader contrast of optimism and pessimism.

Even with the necessary contrast of positivity and nihilism, the starry-eyed hope that emerges in the characters’ younger selves cannot be understated. “Our Time,” bursts at the seams with aspiration and possibility that is nearly impossible not to believe, despite knowledge that it won’t end well later in life. In this sense, both metaphorically and literally, “Merrily We Roll Along” ends on a delightfully high note.

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