Theater review: ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ at Actors Co-op
Time has been kinder to “Merrily We Roll Along” than to its three disillusioned main characters, whose youthful idealism, creative aspirations and longtime friendship get not-so-merrily steamrollered during two pivotal decades of the last century. Making the most of modest resources, a heartfelt, committed revival from Actors Co-op shows why this under-appreciated Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has steadily risen in stature since its initial commercial failure in 1981.
The production brings admirable clarity to the show’s story-told-in-reverse concept, beginning in 1976 and moving backward to 1957 (the most daunting aspect of Furth’s book, adapted from an obscure, similarly structured 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart nonmusical drama). At the center of this cautionary showbiz tale, Brent Schindele’s solid performance, strong singing voice and boyish looks straddle the narrative decades as once-gifted Broadway composer-turned-movie producer Franklin Shepard faces a midlife spiritual dead-end and final estrangement from the two friends who mattered most — his high-minded, uncompromising lyricist, Charley (Matt Bauer, who sprints brilliantly through savage condemnation of crass commercialism in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and writer Mary Flynn (Leslie Spencer, who anchors the conscience of the piece as she leads the reprises of “Old Friends”).
Director Richard Israel knows this show in his bones, and his no-frills staging priorities are in the right places. The live six-piece orchestra is essential to the tonalities in Sondheim’s brass and woodwind-heavy score, and if the decision not to mike the singers was budget-driven, it forces them to give the numbers everything they’ve got. The 14-member ensemble may not hit every musical note but they nail all the emotional ones: Retracing life’s pivotal missteps that in hindsight could have been avoided is loaded with both fatalism and poignancy. As the three friends launch their careers beaming with fresh-faced optimism, the “Our Time” finale is truly a heartbreaker.
-– Philip Brandes
“Merrily We Roll Along.” Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. $34. (323) 462-8460 or www.ActorsCo-op.org. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Photo: Leslie Spencer, Brent Schindele and Matt Bauer. Credit: Greg Bell.