Trey Gilpin (from left), Amiee Collier and Eric Fancher. Photo / Kathy Sandham

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

Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Lakeland Civic Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ charming in spite of itself

By Bob Abelman

At the heart of Jason Robert Brown’s intensely personal musical “The Last Five Years” is a simple story about a singular event: The failed marriage between Cathy Hiatt, a young, aspiring but unaccomplished New York actress, and Jamie Wellerstein, a highly successful first novelist.

The play begins with Cathy at the depressing end of the relationship, where she sings the tender-to-the touch torch song “Still Hurting.” Jamie is at the relationship’s joyful beginning, singing about a girl he just met in the upbeat “Shiksa Goddess.” As the play progresses, their respective timelines converge, cross and once again careen in opposite directions, leaving Cathy at the conception of the relationship and Jamie at its conclusion as the lights fade to black.

This remarkable piece of slice-of-life storytelling, first staged in Chicago in 2001 and then produced Off-Broadway in 2002, is told exclusively through songs that run the gamut in range, tempo and temperament. Nearly every one of them is an intricate and strenuous vocal callisthenic that tests the mettle of the performers.

The songs require singers who can deliver them without stress or strain and make it look easy.

And, in order for the audience to invest in Cathy and Jamie and care about the demise of their relationship, the production requires actors who are immediately likable – no, lovable – despite their characters’ unpleasant attributes, namely his raging ego and her debilitating insecurities.

The show also requires performers comfortable enough in their own skin to stand alone and exposed during most of this one-act, 90-minute production, for there is little actual interaction between the two as they go their separate ways.

Neely Gevaart and Jason Leupold possess all of these qualities in this enchanting Lakeland Civic Theatre production.

Gevaart immediately wins over the audience upon uttering her first lines of lament over the failed marriage. The lyric “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on” is profoundly heart wrenching and beautiful when executed by this gifted singer. She has remarkable vocal control and though she does devastation well, Gevaart handles elation even better. Her rendition of “I Can Do Better Than That” is delightful.

Although Leupold doesn’t quite master Jamie’s self-absorbed drive – often substituting hyperactivity for passion – he is endearing from the get-go and a commanding presence on the stage. His rendition of “The Schmuel Song” – a pep talk to Cathy that encourages her to follow her dreams in the form of a fairy tale about a tailor too busy to dream – is absolutely charming.

The one drawback in this number is that director Martin Friedman has Jamie delivering the song to an empty chair rather than the audience or Cathy just out of sight. This turns us into voyeurs rather than engaged participants and suggests an emotional chasm between Jamie and Cathy at a time in the play when it doesn’t exist to that extent.

Actually, this is one of several efforts by Friedman to take a simple story and do something creative with the staging, which is admirable and well intended but often off-base.

Another is providing both performers with a collection of closet sectionals on wheels that contain character-defining artifacts, keepsakes and clothing. These clearly establish each character’s personal space and emotional baggage, and cleverly serve to disguise costume changes between songs.

But they are cumbersome to move – particularly while singing – and their relative placement does not always coincide with the relational timeline of the characters. This lack of attention to detail confuses matters rather than provides clarity.

One creative choice that works particularly well is having the wonderful orchestra – a piano (conductor Jordan Cooper), violin (Rachel Gante), cello (Olivia Clark) and bass (Tim Keo) – on stage behind the performers, which reinforces the play’s emphasis on song over dialogue and adds to the sound quality. Their silhouettes under Christina Pierce’s lighting design are gorgeous.

The conductor performing in shorts and sandals, however, underscores the aforementioned lack of attention to detail. While distracting, the voices, presence and lovability of Gevaart and Leupold still manage to bring all the attention back to where it belongs. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The Last Five Years”

WHERE: Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirkland

WHEN: Through Oct. 2

TICKETS: $7 – $15, call 440-525-7134 or visit lakelandcc.edu/arts


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 23, 2016.

Lead image: Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Trinidad Snider, from left, as the baker’s wife, Brian Altman as the baker, and Jade McGee as Little Red Riding Hood. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Lakeland Civic Theatre offers tepid rendition of Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’

By Bob Abelman

Since the 1970s, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has been transforming all that is simple and predictable and harmonious in American musical theater into something that is more of an acquired taste.

Some theatregoers find his creativity to be outside their comfort zone and beyond the reach of their archaic expectations for musicals.

Others, like Lakeland Civic Theatre artistic director Martin Friedman, appreciate how Sondheim fills the air with a dense stream of words and images, and places a disorienting discord beneath his melodies. His stories are complex, as are the people who inhabit them.

Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” — at Lakeland Civic Theatre under Friedman’s direction — bears all these theatrical trademarks.

The show intertwines the familiar plots of several fairy tale figures, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella. They are tied together via a seemingly simple story involving a baker and his wife venturing into the woods in an effort to reverse the spell that has kept them childless.

Many feel that this musical is more accessible than most of Sondheim’s creations, thanks to its population of fairy tale creations and the contributions of Tony Award-winning librettist James Lapine. But nothing is ever simple with Sondheim.

The characters’ storybook stories play out in Act I along with their relatively superficial and recognizable moral messages. But Act II reveals the consequences of each character’s earlier actions. We discover that evil witches can be right, giants can be good, getting your prince does not mean happily ever after, and having your wish granted can have a serious downside. We’re exposed to the dark underbelly of once upon a time, which is a place Sondheim seems to relish.

Friedman understands all this. And yet his production is uncharacteristically tepid and, at times, bland.

It starts with the choice to do away with the medieval peasant garb that has long been associated with fairy tale characters and replace it with modern clothing. While this certainly reinforces the universal and timeless nature of their journey, which is the point costumer Tesia Beson is making, it sure is less playful and less interesting to look at.

More importantly, the performers wearing these costumes are less playful and less interesting as well.

This is particularly apparent in the Act I musical numbers that require playfulness the most, such as the charming duet “Agony.” Here, Eric Fancher as Cinderella’s Prince and Daniel Simpson as Rapunzel’s Prince attempt to one-up each other as they sing of their own virtues and their future conquests. The song lacks energy, offers no sense of pleasure in its performance, and survives on the merits of its clever lyrics and music alone.

Talented soloists like Neely Gevaart as Cinderella and Lizz Huff as her stepmother also seem lackluster, as if concentrating harder on the complicated wording in the songs than their performance. They also seem hesitant, as if searching for music cues and not finding them.

All this may be due to inadequate musical support from the seven-piece off-stage orchestra under Jordan Cooper’s direction. It sounds thin and limited to just piano by the time it filters through the theater’s tired sound system and reaches the actors and the audience.

The ensemble as a whole fights through this and their musical numbers sound great, as if having a stage full of performers provides all the support that is needed. They nail the complex harmonies, manage the immensely difficult wordplay, and sing full-out.

So do Amiee Collier as the Witch (her “Last Midnight” is superb), Brian Altman and Trinidad Snider as the absolutely endearing Baker and his wife, and Jade McGee, who is a delightfully assertive Little Red Riding Hood.

Like Friedman, Trad A Burns appreciates how Sondheim fills the air with a dense stream of words and images, and applies this to his scenic design. Instead of trees, the forest that dominates the stage for most of the musical consists of tall, lanky letters that spell out words like “wish,” “fear,” “dark” and “scary.”

This is an intriguing and attractive bit of stagecraft, particularly when the more elongated letters cast dramatic shadows and the vowels provide ample hiding spaces for lurking characters like the big bad Wolf. Although some audience members (OK — me) will find themselves looking for a nonexistent connection between the centermost words in a scene and what is happening in that scene, the visual effect is wonderful.

When performers are not in the woods, they have been placed in front of the curtain, which is a narrow, crowded and terribly awkward space. What little choreography there is serves as traffic control rather than creative storytelling, which contributes mightily to the previously noted tepidity that defines this production.

Sondheim is better than this. So are Friedman and the many gifted performers in this cast. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Into the Woods”

WHERE: Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirkland

WHEN: Through Feb.28

TICKETS & INFO: $7-$15, call 440-525-7134 or visit lakelandcc.edu/arts


 

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 9, 2016.