Lakeland Civic Theatre’s ‘Merrily’ rolls along
By Bob Abelman
Martin Friedman, the director of the Lakeland Civic Theatre, is a sucker for Sondheim.
He has not only staged the composer/lyricist’s most popular works – including “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but he’s also mounted “Anyone Can Whistle,” one of Sondheim’s earliest and most commercially unsuccessful musicals.
So it was only a matter of time that Friedman would return to a personal favorite, the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” which lasted on Broadway for 16 performances in 1981 despite possessing many of Sondheim’s greatest songs and one of his most complex scores.
“Merrily” traces the disintegrating idealism and unravelling relationship of three good friends. Franklin Shepard (Eric Fancher) is a gifted songwriter driven by success and all of its trappings. Charley Kringas (Trey Gilpin) is a talented and lovable lyricist and Franklin’s long-time writing partner, who believes in art for art’s sake. Mary Flynn (Amiee Collier) is a brilliant novelist with an excessive personality that lends itself to heartache and heavy drinking.
Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which was also a flop, the musical starts at the end of the story and moves backward through time, from the dark disillusionment that comes to a head in 1976 to the starry-eyed promises made when these three meet on a rooftop while attending Juilliard and Columbia University in 1957.
This reverse-time pretense adds poignancy to the proceedings, since we see how these three lives play out before we witness how they began. But it apparently displeased or confused audiences, who were perhaps also depressed by the show’s driving cynicism and turned off by its thoroughly unlikable central character, Franklin.
The show has been revised since, most notably in 1995 when songs were cut and added, and several structural changes were made, including a new opening. And new high-profile stagings – including a 2012 Encores! concert performance at New York’s City Center and a 2013 Olivier Award-winning Menier Chocolate Factory production in London’s West End – have been quite successful.
But these changes in the musical also come at a cost, particularly for aficionados who note that they blunt Sondheim’s signature sharp edges. They soften the work’s keen intensity, biting theatricality and overt cynicism about life in the theater and life in general.
It is this revised version of “Merrily” that is currently on stage at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Fortunately, Friedman recognizes that much of Sondheim’s brilliant storytelling and important insights into his characters’ psychology are channeled into and still reside in the songs they sing. And so, in this wonderful production, particular attention has been placed on the music.
Friedman employs a top-notch 11-piece orchestra with Jordan Cooper at the helm, and puts them center stage behind a translucent scrim.
He makes sure there is nothing in Austin Kilpatrick’s scenic design to serve as a detraction, employing cardboard moving boxes introduced in the opening scene as furniture throughout the production and rearranging free-standing doors on wheels to establish locations.
And he casts personable and Sondheim-savvy performers in the featured roles, who can mine every necessary nuance in their songs to give their characters the dimensionality and texture the show requires.
Fancher beautifully balances Franklin’s edginess with vulnerability, particularly in the song “Growing Up” and in his interactions with his first wife Beth (Neely Gevaart, whose gorgeous “Not a Day Goes By” is a show highlight) and man-eater second wife Gussie (Kelly Elizabeth Smith, whose turn in her version of “Growing Up” is another highlight).
Gilpin, as Charley, does the same in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” where he painfully discloses the significance of his friendship with Franklin while simultaneously destroying it.
There is not a song performed by Collier that fails to find the depth of her character’s conflicting emotions regarding her best friends, but when Mary and the boys sing “Old Friends,” her contribution is astoundingly heartfelt.
The supporting company – particularly Daniel Simpson as Broadway producer Joe Josephson, but also Kyle Burnett, Anna Barrett, Carlos Antonio Cruz, Sarah Clare, Kate Leigh Michalski, Frank Ivancic and Jake Spencer – are superb as well.
This production manages to circumvent what many have long believed to be so problematic about this musical and put on stage what Friedman and other true Sondheimaphiles have recognized and admired since 1981.
This “Merrily” most certainly rolls along.
“Merrily We Roll Along”
Where: Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Dr., Kirtland
When: Through Feb. 18
Tickets: $7 – $15, call 440-525-7134 or go to lakelandcc.edu/arts
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 3, 2018.
Lead image: Trey Gilpin (from left), Amiee Collier and Eric Fancher. Photo / Kathy Sandham