By any measure, “Merrily We Roll Along” the Huntington Theatre Company’s season opener is a first rate show with a brilliant cast, directed by Maria Friedman who recreates her smash hit London production with a challenging book by George Furth about luck and choice, and a Sondheim score that sheds light on those murky twists and turns in a life that ironically rolls “merrily” along.
The action teeters on a talented troika of friends: Frank Shepard (Mark Umbers) a composer turned filmmaker, Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) a lyricist (both actors from the London production.) The third is Mary Flynn (Eden Espinosa) a gifted writer turned drama critic who has always carried a torch for the tall, handsome, randy and ambitious Frank. The show begins with Frank alone on stage having put aside Broadway for success as a filmmaker in Hollywood. Mary and Charlie continually lament and resent Frank’s success, claiming the artistic high ground and clinging to the past.
The show works its way backwards chronologically from the arid peak of Frank’s success in a swanky Bel Air beach house in 1976 to the threesome’s first buoyant meeting on a New York City rooftop in 1957. The action flips back through the past in order to unravel the truth, to make some sense of, to figure out what went right and wrong; it’s tricky to keep track and remember who knew what, and when they knew it. But even if we’re foggy on the details, our prior knowledge of the outcome of each choice lends the show a rueful, fatalistic veneer that makes our hearts ache a bit.
If only we cared MORE about this trinity and their first world problems which don’t quite resonate universally. But nothing’s lacking in these performances; each possesses nimble vocal skills and dynamic range. In fact, Humbley whips himself into a musical frenzy in an Act I tour de force rant called “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which illustrates and illuminates Charlie’s gripe with his more commercially-inclined partner Frank. The moment is loaded because while Frank means well, he’s a bit shallow and oblivious, and Charlie, though wounded, is self-righteous and cruel. Mary drinks herself into a lather over her unrequited love for Frank and sings her heart out, but it’s never quite clear how Frank let Mary down, unless it was to be simply unattracted to her.
Local star Jennifer Ellis as Frank’s first wife Beth and the mother of his only child Frank Jr. comes closer than anyone to reaching us where we live; she’s at first dazzled, then betrayed by the glamorous world that seduces her husband, and her aching delivery of one of Sondheim’s most beautiful ballads “Not a Day Goes By” is savagely poignant. Local light Aimee Doherty is her perfect foil as Frank’s second wife Gussie and seduction incarnate: Doherty has never sounded or looked better in a collage of shiny chic 60’s-70’s ensembles and comes out blazing at the top of ACT II belting out a showstopper.
The show follows the Sondheim template: a chorus of performers who circle the stage echoing the action, amplifying the mood, reinforcing the theme which usually explores the nature of art and love, and their relationship to the vagaries of commerce and time: Does commercial success always corrupt? Does romantic love always fade? Sondheim’s extraordinary melodies uniquely blend the bitter with the sweet via unexpected intervals and complicated rhyme schemes. His artistic gifts are uniquely suited to capturing the melancholy vagaries of life, love, and art, trailing an inexplicable yearning for the dream, perfection, the elusive home…. “Merrily We Roll Along” is a work that doesn’t quite satisfy, though Sondheim lovers, and I am one, will find plenty to listen to and yearn for here. That’s the way we roll. Through October 15.