All Things Entertaining and Cultural
When I saw Harold Prince’s original staging in 1981, I loved several of the songs, but did not enjoy the show because I thought Prince stressed the jaded sourness of the characters, and something about that was unseemly considering the ages of the actors and that even though the characters advance in their careers or alcoholism, they are generally successful.
A 1982 student production in Princeton cured any negativity about “Merrily” left over from the Prince production. It centered more on the plot than the theme, was not as stylized, and let the qualities of the characters come through more naturally.
Since those two experiences, I’ve seen “Merrily” about eight additional times, with different reactions. One standout is the Arden production with its memorable performances by Tony Freeman as Charlie and the late and sorely missed Jilline Ringle as Mary. The best ever was a 2013 London production that caught the maturity and sophistication in Sondheim and Furth’s piece while retaining some sentiment and providing great insight into the various characters. Josefina Gabriele’s Gussie Carnegie was particularly brilliant. Luckily, that production is preserved and is occasionally shown in movie theaters that feature videos of London shows. (Can’t wait to see Ralph Fiennes is Shaw’s “Man and Superman” later this spring!)
What stands out most in Temple Theaters’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along” is some of the nascent talent the school is grooming. Vocally, you heard the brittle and beautiful in Sondheim’s lyrics. Michael Kiliany, playing Charlie, did a fine manic job on his big number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and crooned sweetly while singing “Good Thing Going,” mentioned in Furth’s script as the Frank Sinatra hit it actually became. Allison Boyle, as Mary, the piercingly cynical member of a trio of friends who meet in a New York apartment building and vow to become great artists, finds the right tone for declaration of life not being so rosy, “Now You Know.” Alison Weisberg, as Beth, wrings the emotion from “Not a Day Goes By” and is, at times by far, the most recognizable character from real life you’ll see on the Randall Theater stage.
Except for Weisberg, these leads, and their castmates in the ensemble, often fall victim to an amateurish overplaying of “Merrily We Roll Along” by director Brandon McShaffrey, who decidedly does not aim for a sense of his characters’ sophistication, intelligence, or reality. Kiliany escapes McShaffrey’s exaggeration of everything by staying believably neurotic and congenitally honest as Charlie. Charles Watson escapes it by being a handsome child who comes off as only what he is, a kid. Others, especially Chandler Price as Gussie and Chris Monaco as her one-time husband, Joe Josephson, may want to question McShaffrey’s choice to have them overdo the quirks inherent in their roles. Monaco plays a older, cranky man well as directed, but the portrayal comes from Broadway shtick of the ’60s, not from Sondheim’s conception of Broadway. In Monaco’s first appearance, he is directed to be pathetic in a way Joe never would be. The character would maintain his dignity whatever his situation and appear like a New York businessman down on his luck, not like a schlemiel who doesn’t remember his past or his manners. Price is directed to be crass and brassy instead of classy. That choice is within the spectrum of how Gussie can be portrayed but it makes her one-note and unsympathetic. Gussie needs to be the kind of person the musical’s focal character, Franklin Shepard, would aspire to be — chic, witty, and in charge — not a brusque dame who has the manners of a slang-speaking Central Casting chorine even after she has become a bona fide Broadway and Hollywood star.
Like Monaco, Price plays her part to the hilt. You have to applaud the moxie she puts into it, but I kept feeling sorry for how cheaply and incompletely Gussie was being interpreted.
The ensemble gets the worst of the excess. Although McShaffrey is a decent choreographer, he has his dancers, especially the males, wiggling, wriggling, and jiggling as if they were gelatinous — really, they look like living lava lamps — and posing in ways that scream parvenu, fake, pretentious, and gay. Very, very gay! Old-fashioned stereotypically, almost insultingly, gay!
“Merrily We Roll Along,” the musical of which is taken from a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, runs backwards in time, as Kaufman and Hart prescribed. It begins at a 1976 party to celebrate Franklin Shepard’s latest hit film and ends on a 1957 rooftop when Franklin, Charlie, and Mary begin their close friendship.
Parties held in 1976 and 1962, illustrate the “can’t tell satire from travesty” problem the best. Every chorus member who speaks at the 1976 “do” exaggerates his or her speaking voice to give it a “well, dahling,” clenched-mouth accent I can only guess is meant to express a tone of polish and superiority. It’s like listening to a colloquy of sycophantic hangers-on that have taken a Berlitz course in Bryn Mawr patois.
Worse than the speech patterns are the swishy walk and pinky-out gesture every male affects. Worse than that are the facial expressions that are supposed to convey knowingness and membership in the “in” crowd. Anyone with real status and real sophistication would laugh at the lot of them, as Mary does.
And let’s get into the subject of laughter. Furth’s script calls for the assemblage to be having a good, and somewhat drunken, time, but McShaffrey goes overboard. Everyone laughs at his own bon mot with a big guffaw, a slap on somebody’s back, or a limp wrist taking flight. In a more controlled production, this might be a stylistic, or even a comic effect. In this production it only reinforces that these young actors were not trained in knowing who the characters they’re playing are. Or that they were misguided.
Poor things, they’re left out there on stage to be bold and broad, and it’s all so wrong and tacky. Anyone who’s been to a Hollywood party from 1976 would tell you so.
No one is natural. Yes, the characters are supposed to be snobby, snotty, and full of themselves. They are of the kind that should disapprove of Mary’s inebriated outbursts. In the Temple production, they deserve Mary’s contempt and have nerve castigated her when they’re all so ersatz. Mary, who behaves badly and embarrasses herself, represents the only one in the room I’d want to know.
Characters in plays are supposed to be as much a possible like real people. Directors can opt for “over the top.” Megan Nicole O’Brien is making theatrical greatness out of doing just that in “Field Hockey Hot.” The brilliant Stephen Wadsworth specializes in stylizing characters to show their essences beyond their dialogue. What McShaffrey has his cast do is just posing. His partygoers are an adolescent’s view of what the smart set looks, sounds, and moves like. They remind one of an entire group of teenagers doing hammy Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn imitations. Cary Grant, unparodied, would have been a more fitting model for how a person would behave at a swank party..
One thing I liked and thought did capture the intended chic in McShaffrey’s production were the black-and-white costumes assembled by Marie Anne Chiment, who must have gone hither and yon to find the various dresses for the cast, the best being the one being worn by the ingénue about to become a star at the 1976 party. The only garment I question is one worn by one of the male dancers at the 1962 shindig. White gauze, ripped along the rear shoulder seam and hanging down diaphanously? I don’t think so.
In a way, I have to give McShaffey’s entire cast credit. They executed all they were directed to do well. Within the context that McShaffrey was instructing them, no one made a misstep. Few conquered the excesses, and some fell into their director’s traps headlong. Most went with the flow and did as they were told, a stance that paid off in the choreography, which was lively and, at times, interesting. While I would have liked to tone down the dramatics and impose some subtlety on twitching hips and overactive shoulders, the cast was able to meet McShaffrey’s demands and, as noted, should be applauded for that.
The cast worked hard. You can see that. They also seem to be having a good time, something I’d hate to take away from them, and would not if McShaffrey’s direction was less egregious..
The upshot is “Merrily We Roll Along” gets a bit distorted. The story comes through, and Sondheim’s music is generally safe, but the characters are a naïve person’s vision of the rich, famous, and powerful and even more of a fantasy about the “in” set that, yes, Furth is satirizing, but that become a different, unintended kind of joke under McShaffrey’s tutelage.
The director seems not to know when an idea works or not. For instance, he has worked out an intricate windmill number for Frank, Charlie, and Mary when they’re singing “Old Friend.” The trio gyrate in mechanical ways. They throw fake punches at each other and go into all kinds of patterns in which they turn and duck and wheel and stoop among other motions. The dance is actually quite creative. As a bit, it could work handily in the appropriate place. “Old Friend” happens not to be that place. The motions are too big for the song, too complex for the simple, direct, and sincere sentiment being expressed. Yes, Frank, Charlie, and Mary are in synch. They’re close and symbiotic and in tune with each other’s thoughts and feelings. They could anticipate the way one would move and counter it by ducking or moving in a different direction. They may have silly routines they have worked up between themselves. This number was not the place to reveal any of that. McShaffrey’s business was too much. It’s too self-conscious. It yells, “Isn’t this a great bit?” The answer is yes, but for another song in another musical.
That may be what this director has to learn — to distinguish “too much” from “enough.” (I heard that “look who’s talking,” Messrs S and E.)
One number that worked particularly well was “Jackie and Bobby and Jack,” an amiably observant take on the Kennedy clan Frank and Charlie devise for a nightclub revue in 1960. For this bit, McShaffrey seemed to be more careful in working out the details of the routine. Perhaps he judged that since Frank and Charlie were not supposed to be actors, they would keep their work simple (although there are some complex steps in the number), Whatever his thought process, McShaffrey and his cast brought the cabaret sketch home. I liked it and thought it was an exception that shows what the entire production should have been. The novelty number became a refreshing change of pace, a relief from the constant high dudgeon of most of the show.
Even in this most successful sequence, there’s a glitch. I have nothing against what is called non-traditional casting. A part is a part, and any actor should be able to play it. Sometimes one must take care the script doesn’t lay traps for this ecumenicalism. Following the Kennedy routine in “Merrily We Roll Along,” Frank and his castmate Beth Spencer are scheduled to get married. Beth’s parents are in from the Midwest to attend the ceremony. They are not happy with Frank. They would prefer their daughter to marry a man with a profession and a steady job so Beth can pursue her acting career while her husband supports her. (Remember, it’s 1960.) The wedding goes on, and at the end, Beth’s resigned mother whispers to her husband, “Well, at least he didn’t marry a black man.”) The Randall audience erupts in laughter because of all the men in the ensemble, McShaffrey has chosen Philip Anthony Wilson, who happens to be black, to play Beth’s father. I’m sure McShaffrey knew what he was doing and thought that today’s political correctness and attitudes about non-traditional casting would be too well indoctrinated for anyone to think his casting was funny. Wrong! Ludicrous is ludicrous. Cast Wilson and cut the line, or keep the line and assign another chorus lad to be Beth’s father. McShaffrey just walked into “stupid” of his own volition.
The backwards time progression of “Merrily We Roll Along” helps Ian Parker, who plays Franklin Shepard.
When we meet Frank in 1976, he is “it.” He has parlayed his abilities as a composer to delve into and succeed gloriously at every aspect of show business. The musicals he wrote with Charlie for Broadway are hits that establish both financially for life. Frank has also written film scores and has begun to direct movies. The 1976 party is to celebrate the opening of his latest film, for which rave reviews arrive mid-party.
Parker is a bit callow as Frank at this early point in the script. He doesn’t muster the stature and poise the man would have in his own home, among his sycophants, and with Mary close by. You don’t see the an established, successful artist. You see the temperament of a younger man who may have had one hit and is under stress to prove himself with another. Chiment doesn’t help Parker by giving him a dress shirt with a collar that isn’t right for his neck or of a quality Frank would wear.
As “Merrily” wends towards its beginning in 1957, Parker’s portrayal becomes stronger and more in keeping with Frank’s character and place in life. The actor seems to understand the struggling, striving Frank more than he captures the sensibility of a man who has achieved acclaim and is a figure of envy at the top of his field. Later scenes in which Parker’s Frank battles his conscience about whether to leave Beth and their son and marry Gussie are well-considered and well-played. So are the sequences in which Beth and Frank announce they are in love. The younger Frank gets, the richer Parker’s portrayal becomes. The contrast between the harried Frank of 1976 and the optimistic, motivational Frank of 1957 is remarkable, and Parker helps to make it so.
Michael Kiliany is the perpetual juvenile as Charlie. His character never seems to age or change much in his attitude or outlook towards his work, but Kiliany finds a way to break through and show Charlie’s dissatisfaction as Frank forgets the purity of their work and looks only for commercial and aggrandizing pursuits.
Because Charlie is high-strung, and Furth has him admit it, Kiliany is free to give some size to Charlie. Even with that advantage, he keeps things in control and never stretches his character beyond the bounds of credibility.
Charlie’s last straw, Frank signing a three-picture deal with Paramount that will kibosh any idea of writing a new musical and put Charlie on the back burner, leads to the character’s bravura complaint, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” inopportunely performed in response to a question Charlie and Frank are asked while on a television talk show. Kiliany launches into the complicated number with aplomb, remaining funny while increasing stewing and adding more venom to his tirade protesting the way Frank is abandoning his artistry for popular, but less prestigious, recognition.
McShaffrey seems to have left Kiliany to his own devices on his excellent and excitingly-realized big number. If he coached the young actor, I offer a Bravo!
For some reason, some blessed reason, Alison Weisberg never succumbs to McShaffrey;s excesses as Beth, From the beginning, when we see Beth preferring to be blind about Gussie, then fighting with Frank for the attention now going to Gussie, Weisberg is nothing but unpretentious and genuine. Her performance seems crafted from real life and tailored to her character, who does not have the East Coast punch her husband and his friends do.
Beth is an adult. She may scream in glee when she’s given the part in Frank and Charlie’s nightclub review, but her outburst is in proportion to the event and her character.
You always believe Weisberg’s Beth and feel for her because he is so decent, practical, logical and of the real world.
Chandler Price is a tyro as Gussie. Even the later scenes, set in earlier times, you see Price’s Gussie on a one-way track to get what she wants and needs at any cost.
Gussie is a diva, a noted player on Broadway even before Frank writes starring roles that catapult her to the top of the leading lady hierarchy. Price plays the tough, grasping side of Gussie well,
The difference between Josefina Gabriele’s great Gussie and Price’s well-played but incomplete Gussie is class. Gabriele rose in manners and poise as Gussie rises from the chorus to stardom. Price never lets go of the brash, demanding, and coarse Gussie who has no morals and no rules, just an eye on the next prize and how to attain it.
For consistency, stamina, and general acting, I would give Price high marks for her portrayal. The performance could have been modulated, and Gussie allowed to be the type that would know to wear mink instead of leopard, but as directed by McShaffrey, Price was all shrewd energy, which she displayed with gusto.
Allison Boyle, as Mary, follows the pattern Parker does as Frank. Her character ripens as she become younger and “Merrily We Roll Along” goes back in time.
Boyle is fine as the alcoholic Mary who visibly and verbally disdains the movers and shapers she encounters at Frank’s 1976 party. She keeps a jaundiced eye on the crowd and makes it clear she doesn’t want to commune much with the vapid bunch Frank and Gussie have assembled to celebrate Frank’s film triumph.
Like Weisberg, Boyle in contained and natural in Mary’s later/earlier scenes. She is particularly good at letting us see Mary’s perennial infatuation with Frank, who regards her as a buddy more than as a woman with sexual desires.
Mary is the first of the friends who sees the world as less than a lark. Boyle does a sincere job with “Now You Know,” the song in which she tells Frank life for many is not as easy or, at least, as increasingly rewarding as it’s been for him. (“I mean, big surprise, people love you and tell you lies. Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies. Put your dimple down. Now you know.”)
Chris Monaco is in the same position as Joe that Chandler Price is as Gussie, The character being played is OK as is, but is incomplete and fundamentally misunderstood.
Joe is a ranking Broadway producer. He has an ear for art but an appetite for the popular that will fill seats and, in pre-TDF days, generate a profit for the producer and his investors. Monaco chooses, or is directed, to play him as if he’s a shmata peddler from the Garment District. The New York accent works, but Joe, like Gussie and Frank, needs stature. He’s a man about a town, an important man on Broadway and in the theater. He’s not a schlumpf or Gussie’s doormat. HIs demeanor would reflect that, even in a scene in which Joe is down on his luck.
Joe’s nails would be polished. His manners too! Again, it looks as if McShaffrey has opted for stereotype over the depiction of genuine people. This approach doesn’t change the script or take away the plausibility of what Monaco is doing, but it cheapens Furth’s intent. McShaffrey doesn’t know the people who populate his stage, and he has them played at their lowest and most clichéd pitch instead of their highest and most refined, as I think is more in keeping with “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Bryan DeSilva and an unlisted cohort do well in making Sondheim’s score zing along on two pianos. Michael Long gives McShaffrey’s production some texture with videos of Manhattan, L.A. and other places germane to Franklin Shepard’s story. With the few exceptions noted, Marie Ann Chiment showed the wit and style the rest of McShaffrey’s production missed with her never-ending combinations of black-and-white ensembles.
“Merrily We Roll Along,” produced by Temple Theaters, runs through Sunday, March 22, at the Randall Theatre in Annenberg Hall at Temple University, N. 13th Street between Norris and Diamond Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25 with various available discounts and can be obtained by calling 215-204-1122 or by visiting www.temple.edu/theater.