“It’s a Sondheim musical that’s never done,” director Becky Dinerstein ’09 said, when asked why she decided to put up “Merrily We Roll Along” this week. “It’s very kitschy, and most people find that hard to deal with.”
Though Dinerstein tries to subvert this aptly identified problem, her valiant attempts ultimately fall short. Just as Dinerstein admits to the cheesiness of the play, so do the performers and the performance itself nod to the absurdity of its many saccharine moments, though not definitively. The performance waffles between self-mockery and genuine sentimentality, and this lack of a concrete attitude towards the script fundamentally weakens an otherwise enjoyable production.
“Merrily” presents the trajectory of sell-out composer Franklin Shepard (played by Jacob Liberman ’10) run in reverse. Starting with his immersion in a false and unhappy world of riches, the play ends with him watching Sputnik as a dreamy, idealistic teenager. This structure allows for a typical happy ending, but it’s tinged with melancholy as the audience remembers that the story’s true end is tragic.
This production of “Merrily” is cabaret-style, both textually and spatially. Remarkably, an inverted theater-in-the-round with the audience sitting at small tables (refreshments provided!) and the actors performing on peripheral platforms is an excellent and unique use of the Off-Broadway Theater, which more often than not lends itself to sloppy design in other productions. But while the space is solid, the textual cabaret style is not. Heavily cut dialogue — presumably because it’s mostly trite and unconvincing — leaves only the crux of the interactions, which tend to be painfully melodramatic. In her attempt to subvert corniness, Dinerstein has, ironically, concentrated it. Whether it would have been less painful to have the cheesiness spread through a full-length play is unclear, but in this production the actors find themselves in the midst of moments to which they seem unready to commit.
There are certainly exceptions: The dynamic between Frank and best friend Charley (Marshall Pailet ’09) offers moments of true humor and authentic sentiment. The most impressive and enjoyable number in the show, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” arrives with the explosive, friendship-destroying television interview between Frank and Charley. Mary (Kate Berman ’11), the third best friend in the triumvirate, is consistently watchable, though she sometimes lacks a specificity that would flesh out her mostly two-dimensional character.
The company is generally energetic but sloppy — many actors seem unsure of the choreography and even some of the lyrics — and it is in them that the performance most strongly expresses its ambivalence toward Sondheim’s sentimentality. The choreography is repetitive and dull, and the actors are divided in their commitment to it. Some seem entirely engaged while some seem to be almost laughing at themselves (Liberman is alone in his ability to carry off this schlocky dancing, singing and acting style with any sort of ease). This ambiguity leaves the audience without a strong sense of what they are watching, what they are being told and how they ought to react to it.
The singing, though, is consistently good and sometimes excellent. Because “Merrily ” is almost never produced, Dinerstein explained, “Some of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs are lost,” which she sees as further justification for choosing a problematic play. And it is true; the forced sentimentality in the brief, non-musical scenes finds a much more compelling voice in song. Standout singers include: Emily Jenda ’10 (as Gussie) with a smooth, strong voice and what could have been a surprisingly subtle sensuality if not for her laughably obvious costume, Maia Collier ’11 (playing Beth) as well as Berman and Liberman.
“Merrily” succeeds most when the musical intentionally and fully mocks itself. This happens best in a number like “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” in which Frank, Charley and Mary jokingly discuss the Kennedy takeover of the White House. The choreography is only slightly sillier than that in the more serious scenes, and here it works as it should. Songs like “Bobby” do not dominate the show, however, and cannot entirely counter the schmaltz. Still, “Merrily” proves an enjoyable and relatively lively experience.