Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of Porchlight Music Theatre's Merrily We Roll Along

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Merrily We Roll Along. The book and music were by Stephen Sondheim and the book was by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was directed by Michael Weber. Music direction was by Aaron Benham and the musical staging was by Christopher Pazdernik. It is about three old friends Frank (Jim DeSelm), Mary (Neala Barron), and Charley (Matt Crowle), who were all writers who met each other in the '50s. It is about their friendship and how they grow apart (or in this case grow together because the story is told backwards). It is about Frank looking back on his life and realizing all the mistakes that he's made. It is about remorse, unrequited love, and making it in the artistic world. I thought this was a really fun show about not-so-fun topics. I loved the score, and the performances were great.

My favorite song in this show is "Opening Doors." It is basically about all the ups and downs of an artist's life: getting jobs, losing jobs, auditioning, disappointment, and excitement. This is a thing about the artist's life that doesn't get written about a lot in musicals--the experience of the people writing the musicals. You can be passionate about it and still be annoyed with it a lot of the time. I liked how they used typewriters and other unconventional objects, like pencils, as musical instruments. It is also showing how art is work and they are turning this object that is thought of as being used for work into something to make art. Inside this song there is another song called "Who Wants to Live in New York," which Charley and Frank take to a producer, Joe (David Fiorello). He says that it is not catchy enough. It makes you wonder how Sondheim ever got produced, since I think it might be one of his catchiest songs! That is not to say I don't love Sondheim. He is my favorite musical writer, but you can't always tap your feet to the beat. Earlier in the show, but later in their lives, the friends--along with Joe and Beth (Aja Wiltshire), Frank's wife--sing a song called "It's a Hit" after Charley and Frank have just opened their musical, which is the backwards payoff of opening doors. It is basically talking about all the people they had proved wrong. For some reason, in this play, even though you know everything is going to be terrible soon for almost everyone, you still feel happy for everyone when something good happens to them. I think there is a very cool contrast between the songs, but they both make you happy. Even in "Opening Doors" there is a sense of happiness with what they are doing, even if they aren't yet as successful as they want to be.

Mary and Charley sort of get left in the dust once Frank has a hit. Mary has been in love with Frank for a really long time, but has always hid her feelings. In the first scene of the play, everyone sings a song called "That Frank," at a party which is after his movie premiere. You get to see how she feels from the beginning of the show; she loves him but she feels like he is being a jerk all the time. She is so mad at him at the party, and she misses the old Frank. That sets us up to pay attention to how she looks at him or says different little lines in the scenes later on in play. You want to know where who Frank is today came from. And you get to know that because of how Mary keeps singing and talking about how things used to be. I wish the writers had given her a bigger part other than just being in love with Frank. But I think she actually rocks the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By," which she sings during Frank and Beth's vows. It is so heartbreaking and she sings it beautifully. It is not like I think the unrequited love part was unimportant of not effective, or didn't add to the story. I just think they should have given Mary more to do than just be in love with someone. I wanted to know about her backstory and her career. Charley sings a song called "Franklin Shepard, Inc." that is basically Charley's side of the story, talking about how Frank is just a corporation instead of being an actual person who writes music with him. The song is super fast and there are a lot of sounds mixed in with the talking. And everything is so rapid fire that your brain doesn't fully hear that somebody went "brringgg" instead of saying an actual word. I think Crowle did a great job with this with making the repetition in this song still interesting and funny each time.

Both of Frank's wives, Gussie (Keely Vasquez) and Beth, had their hearts broken by him. Something that I liked about that is that they didn't just go off crying. They actually had complex feelings about it. Beth sings a song, the first "Not a Day Goes By," which is the second chronologically, where they are in divorce court and Frank asks if she still loves him. And she says, "Of course I do. There is not a single day that I don't love you, but you have hurt me so many times that this is not going to work out." She seems to be singing it angrily and fiercely, which is a great contrast to the reprise, where she is saying her vows to Frank. It shows you love is hard and complicated. You continue to love the person you love even though it is not the healthy option. And Beth eventually realizes that even though she loves Frank, she shouldn't be with him if it isn't good for them anymore. The contrast between the songs shows you that love can be very scary but it can also be beautiful. And then there is Gussie. She is not sad and confused. She was very direct and asked Frank "Are you in love with this person?" And he said yes, and she was like, "Ok. Goodbye. You're a jerk." It might just be because she has been through so many divorces before and she is used to the feeling of it. This is her most sympathetic moment because at that point you don't know that she was the other woman in Beth's case. I think it is interesting how the sympathy you have have for Gussie decreases as the play goes on. Your sympathy for a lot of the other characters either stays the same or increases. Except for Frank who wobbles around. He could seem like a good person in one scene and in the next scene he could be acting insanely selfishly. Frank is a kind of an anti-hero. He has so many flaws, but you still want the best for him because that will be the best outcome for the people around him who you think are better people.

People who would like this show are people who like heartbreaking unrequited love ballads, corporation people, and typewriter songs. I think people will have a lot of fun at this show. I enjoyed the great performances and the amazing score. I liked it.

Photos: Michael Courier

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