Huntington Theater Company continues its exploration of Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre with Merrily We Roll Along, which runs through October 15th. Based on Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play of the same name, the musical had a troubled production history following a botched Broadway run in 1981, where it lasted just 16 performances. Thankfully for audiences, the show has gone on to have a cult following, and in recent years has become a mainstay of the Sondheim repertory—even if it is not as well known as Into the Woods or Sunday in the Park with George (reviewed here). A note-perfect rendition, Maria Friedman’s conception stays true to Sondheim’s themes of friendship, the price of success, and his “art of making art”.
Starting in 1976, Merrily takes place over a 19-year span through an experimental narrative, telling the story in reverse chronological order. Composer-cum-movie producer Franklin Shepard and his two best friends Charles Kringas (a writer-lyricist) and Mary Flynn (a novelist and critic) navigate the dissolution of friendships and marriages, where potentials and possibilities are mortgaged, foreclosed, and damaged beyond repair. We witness a side to Sondheim where he explores interior selves with increased self-knowledge, and when perhaps he airs one too many uncomfortable truths; he treats conflict with bittersweet humor. Like many good epics, the narrative focuses on one character. In this case, the subtle and visceral tragedy of Franklin Shepard’s outward success comes at the expense of his friendships.
Soutra Gilmour’s scenic and costume design situates the viewer firmly in a time warp. Her quasi-California Contemporary style set nods towards mid-century modern with just a hint of Japanese aesthetics. Sliding panels and shifting backdrops indicate time and mood changes; an “on air” light signifying a television studio and a black drop curtain suggesting a scene in a theater’s backstage, all contribute to a relatively understated physical setting. Costumes are decreasingly lavish as the play progresses (or, rather, regresses). From lavish 1970s party gear to Mary’s frumpy 1950s ensemble, the chorus and principals draw the audience backwards through the decades, negating the need to sing the year “It’s 1960!”
This production of Merrily originated in London, and director Maria Friedman brought Damian Humbley (Charles) and Mark Umbers (Frank) to Boston from the UK. Humbley handles Charles with delicacy. He forever lives in Frank’s shadow but comes to life in a rip-roaring mad scene, which is every bit as operatic as Sondheim gets. His rejection of one of his best friends (Frank) and inability to comfort his other (the embittered, bottle swigging Mary) nevertheless allows Charles to come into his own. Humbley displays a wide range—from quiet disappointment to hysterical energy—in his tight body language with occasional frenetic bursts as he inhabits the stage. He is every bit as restrained as Umbers is expansive. Both men were in fine voice, clearly articulating even in the sotto voce moments. Coming from Humbley, a well-judged application of vibrato made his Charles tender, even in the upper vocal range. Umbers’ palette of vocal colors shone, particularly in the finale “Our Time”. Here, a sensitive and haunting pianissimo (with a gently reined in pit) reminded us of all that Frank’s future self will lose.
Eden Espinosa found in the character Mary something refreshing and humorous. She controlled her mezzo belt nicely and sobbed her regret without being lachrymose. Her duet “Not a Day Goes By” with Frank’s first wife Beth (delicately portrayed by Jennifer Ellis) carried a bleakness we don’t usually hear on the lyric stage. Aimee Doherty brought forth great vocal range as Gussie (Frank’s second wife). Her show stopping number at the top of Act II rang out nothing short of spectacular, while she maintained all the glitz and glamor of a star in the play-within-a-play.
The late George Furth’s dialogue has patchy moments – not cringe-worthy but not always helpful to the plot or in delivering the pathos and unhappiness that the music captures so elegantly. With the exception of Mary’s comic asides (and Espinosa deserves special credit for her quick timing) much of the spoken humor falls flat due to labored content rather than execution.
The chorus took on multiple smaller roles with energy, however suffered from some excessive amplification. The ensemble singing was always strong, and with the loudspeakers, it certainly filled the space. Despite all the tragedy, some moments of humor enlivened the proceedings, usually delivered via physical comedy from the bit-part players. We welcomed this well-timed levity amidst all the Sturm und Drang.
We rarely get to hear a full orchestra in Boston shows. This pit band, masterfully led by Matthew Stern lacked the richer sound that a string section would have brought. (New York City Center’s 2012 production, for instance, delivered a lusher timbre overall with many more instrumentalists, including a sizeable string section.) Nevertheless, this smaller ensemble made up of nine musicians (piano, reeds and brass) produced a cohesive sound through very solid execution, with fine work from the trumpets in particular.
Contrary to what our Manhattan neighbors may think, Boston is more than capable of producing high quality musicals. Judicious choice of material (you can’t go wrong with Sondheim), inventive staging and strong leads make Huntington the local go-to venue for this genre. Maria Friedman’s Merrily unfolds with a respect and honesty for the material rarely encountered anymore in musical theater.
Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.