Theater Latté Da once again reminds us why it is one of our favorite theaters in the Twin Cities. Their production of the lesser known Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along is another feather in a cap already weighed down by an abundance of plumage. I was unfamiliar with this show going in. My Sondheim exposure, I’m beginning to realize, is not as extensive as it should be but I’m sure a few more years of 100 + shows and that will correct itself. It wasn’t a success when it first opened on Broadway in 1981 and it’s hard to imagine why.
Merrily We Roll Along has a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by the late great Stephen Sondheim. The story is told in reverse chronological order following the relationships and careers of three friends Frank and Charley who collaborate on musicals together, and Mary who is a writer. So we start with a Hollywood party celebrating the release of Frankie’s new movie. His old friend Mary is there and they discuss their friend Charley who does not appear, as he and Frank are estranged. Mary drinks too much, it’s revealed that Frank is having an affair and he and his wife are not happy together. Ultimately, Frank declares that if he could go back to the beginning to write with Charley and give all his success up he would, because he’s not happy. Each successive scene is a time jump backwards. We see the moments that destroyed friendships and marriages and then we see the ones that began to fracture them. The play ends with a projected text stating “The Beginning” and was preceded by the moment the that Charley and Frank met Mary for the first time.
In a way this feels like Sondheim’s commentary on the musical form. He has the theatrical producer Joe comment of Frank and Charley’s musical audition saying that they need to add a melody to the songs, give the audience something to hum and tap their toes too. This attitude is presented as the sellout comercial view. Frank and Charley’s songs reflect Sondheim’s own approach to music which is far more complex than verse, bridge, chorus. The structure is a 50 year-old realists version of the way to give your show a happy ending. The older we get the more we come to terms with, like the characters in Merrily We Roll Along, what our life has been and what it’s leading towards. Rarely do we realize all of our ambitions, rarely does our love life play out like the great romance we envision when it begins. The way to achieve the happy ending that a musical audience wants but maintain the reality of world, is to tell it in reverse. Begin with the old disillusioned, drunk, and absent then end with the young, idealistic, and hopeful. It’s the age old cautionary story of the cost of success. Frank is successful at the beginning, but at the cost of many things, most dearly of which is happiness.
Theater Latté Da continues to attract the most talented people on stage and behind the scenes. To start with every single member of the cast it outstanding! How wonderful to behold but how boring to read I know. But it’s true. So let me limit my praise to the three leads for the most part. Reese Britts is Frank, it’s a character who on paper makes a lot of mistakes and could be an unlikeable character in lesser hands. Britts plays him in a way that allows us not to see him as his flaws but to understand his choices. He’s a reflection of a lot of artists who struggle to find the balance between their artistic principles and making a living. It’s Britts skill that allows us to understand that struggle for the character. Dylan Frederick’s Charley is the loyal friend who puts up with a lot. He has the right instincts but Frank frequently drowns him out and he out of loyalty and friendship acquiesce to his friend. Frederick doesn’t allow that quality to let his character appear weak, he plays it as a virtue. Becca Hart gets to shine right out of the gate giving a drunken toast that rings true in a way stage drunkenness rarely does. While all of the cast, particularly the leads had great voices, Hart for my money edged out the others. A quick mention of the two supporting players that really stood out Charlie Clark as the producer Joe and Britta Ollmann as Beth, Frank’s first wife.
Peter Rothstein’s direction and set design are as bold and innovative as the shows structure. Opening the show with a curtain call and having the cast on the fully visible wings before and after their entrances. Even during the intermission the surrounding structure of the stage is like the dressing rooms of a theatre and the cast uses it as such. It somehow acknowledges that this is a theatrical presentation without robbing us of our emotional investment in the story. It’s a choice that seems to underline the commentary on the Musical and artists that the show is making. Grant E. Merges’ lighting design catches us from the very opening when the band starts playing the the dressing room lights flash in time with the music. It’s a effective way to open the show and a nice contrast to some of the more subdued and mood enhancing lighting of later scenes. Sondheim’s more complex moments are handled with ease under the musical direction of Jason Hansen his band. Like so many shows at Theater Latté Da there is a technical excellence in all departments that is flawless.
Merrily We Roll Along is a fantastic production. From it’s stunningly talented cast to the innovative set and direction this is Sondheim done to perfection. Engaging, funny, moving, and thought provoking it makes us confront our own unfulfilled dreams but also gives us a happy ending. The production runs through October 30th for more information and to purchase tickets go to. https://www.latteda.org/merrily-we-roll-along
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