Stephen Sondheim’s music is really, really hard to perform. There are challenging rhythms and unexpected vocal leaps; making it sound smooth and natural has baffled many a singer.
Stephen Sondheim is hard. The cast of Cape Rep’s production of Merrily We Roll Along? They make it look easy.
Not only that, but everything about this production is picture-perfect, from the versatile and gorgeous art-deco set, to the lighting, to the choreography.
Merrily We Roll Along is a story of show-business lives centering around three friends and using the device of traveling backward in time to see, as one of the songs asks, “how did you get to be here?” Everyone has turning-points in their lives that aren’t always obvious in the moment, and the musical takes the time to pinpoint a few of them as these three attain—or turn away from—stardom.
The title was ironic when the show was first produced (who, after all, rolls along with constant merriment?), and seems even more so in the current political climate. And yet as I left the theater I was impressed with the absolute delight on people’s faces. “That was such fun!” my theatre-companion remarked, and the truth is, it was.
Part of that joy was watching Jared Hagen, Trish LaRose, and Adam Berry together on stage. These three actors have been friends in real life for years, and they brought that depth of experience and affection with them to their stage personas.
Berry stars as Franklin Shepard, a composer who sacrificed his artistic dreams to become financially successful. Hagan plays Charley Kringas, a playwright who wants to create pure and beautiful work with his more commercially minded best friend. And LaRose takes on the role of Mary Flynn, a bestselling writer whose unrequited love for Frank has turned her into a vitriolic lush.
Trish LaRose has the best timing of any actor I’ve ever seen. Actors have to make strong clear choices with their material and LaRose is confident and charismatic in hers. She plays Mary’s descent into alcohol abuse first with humor and then with pathos. George Furth’s dialogue helps:
“What do you do?”
“No, what do you do really?”
“I really drink.”
It’s the sort of repartee that sets the audience up to laugh—and then to step back and look at why they laughed. That seems to be one of Mary’s fundamental roles in the play, to deliver zingy lines and then to give space for reflection, with the obvious potential for the character to become heavy-handed. But LaRose’s Mary is smart, funny, and always just a step ahead of the other characters… and of the audience.
Berry has a difficult role: the truth is that Frank just isn’t a very nice person, and as the central character he’s onstage nearly all the time—that’s a lot of time to spend with someone unlikeable. Berry lets us see Frank’s weaknesses and yet allows his less-flawed side to come through, with flashes of humor and a superficiality that veers away from the kind of self-focused soul-searching that other actors in the role have indulged in. One ends up mourning what he could have become rather than despising him for what he is, which is a bit of a tour de force.
And Jared Hagan? He opens his mouth and the room is suddenly still. I’ve had the pleasure of watching—and listening to—Hagan for a number of years, and his voice just keeps getting better and better; musically, he steals this show. Hagen’s Charley retains a fundamental innocence that turns to hurt and anger when Frank betrays their common linked dream, a reasonable if limited view; but Hagan has us cheering for Charley, wishing that he could let go and move beyond Frank into a different collaboration. And really just loving him. He also shows more insight into their development; Frank wants to just take what is in front of him (women, shows, success), while Charley actually gives it all some thought.
“Charley,” asks Frank, “why can’t it be like it was?”
“You and me,” says Charley, “we were nicer then.”
The rest of the cast is stellar. Nearly every one of these actors could have easily taken on one of the main roles, and that energy and quality of work raises them beyond the obvious trope of Greek chorus into individuals interesting in their own right. This is helped considerably by the costumes: this is an opportunity for any designer to go way over the top, and Robin McLaughlin never does. (Though it has to be said that I want Gussie’s costumes as my own new wardrobe!)
The story begins in 1976 with disillusionment and despair, and ends with the promise and purity of 1957, when the trio first met and their dreams were fresh and stars were there for the taking.
Sondheim’s point is that people start out reasonably nice, but then life intervenes—especially when it’s lived in an overcrowded dog-eat-dog profession—and takes its toll on relationships as well. In one of the show’s most achingly poignant moments, Frank’s wife Beth (played by Kelly Plescia) sings “Not a day goes by, not a blessed day, but you’re still somehow part of my life,” even as they stand in divorce court and Frank insists on knowing whether he’s still loved. People make decisions and it’s never clear until later which ones provide turning-points; but Mary alone seems to understand that. Frank wants life to happen to him; Charley refuses to see that they’ve gone down the road too far to back up; Mary tries to create a new present that can forgive the past. And, of course, fails. And yet it’s the hopes and dreams that the audience takes away when leaving, and there’s something terrifically inspirational in that.
A final shout-out to director Maura Hanlon and musical director Peter Hodgson. Because Sondheim is so difficult, the musical director “has” the cast for much longer than is usual in musical theatre, and the director in a sense has to catch up. None of that was apparent here: this is a seamless, spectacular production and a superb start to the Cape Rep season.