When I was in High school I was seeing someone and to cure our addiction to theater we used to volunteer usher all around the Chicago land area. This was a way that a 16 year old was able to see 5 shows a month and attend some of the greatest theater companies in Chicago. I was able to attend shows at Wisdom Bridge, Halsted Theater Center, Briar Street (way before they were the home of those Smurfs), Remains, and so much more. I was also fortunate enough to see quite a bit of shows more then once and with that at one of the best houses to usher which was the Apple Tree Theater in Highland Park I was fortunate enough to see there production of “Merrily We Roll Along” nine times. I know to most people that might sound like overkill. However for a theater addict that was nothing. I also show several shows at Apple Tree thanks to becoming friendly with the house managers Howard and Jill who were two of the nicest people I had ever met. It was also when I just had discovered Sondheim and the concept that Sondheim had a show that flopped. It was also around the time that I had discovered the joy of the diva and in Merrily had Anne Gunn and the ultimate Chicago Diva Hollis Resnik in the same show. So when we signed up to usher my partner and I booked at least two performances every week, on some we were there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and on slow weeks we only did one performance. This was also around the point that Hollis was leaving the run early to go Off Broadway with the Goodman transfer of “Wings” and was replaced with Ann Arvia. An actress who physically was quite different from Hollis and was known for being a Metropolitan Opera singer. Her voice was stunning but her acting and the fact that they stuck her in a lot of Hollis costumes were just wrong she was brilliant however in “Nunsense” at Drury Lane Evergreen Park and as the Leading Player in “Zorba” also at Apple Tree.
I bring up this rather long story for I do have a point. As I was watching The Music Theatre Company's stunning production of “Merrily We Roll Along” I realized how much of a memory show this is and that when first viewing it as a 16 year old kid you enter with as much innocence as the character have in their final scene however 20 years later you realize the utter truths in reality that come from the opening scene and the narrative of this show and regardless if you want to or not you apply them to the memories and events of your life.
The show has always been able to in a single sentence both break the hearts of the audience and left others completely cold. It like quite a bit if not all Sondheim challenges you to do the homework while watching the show. You have to follow the narrative which told in reverse order is not easy to do. The opening scene is what “technically” should be the final scene and the finale moments of the show should again “technically” be the shows beginning. In the middle is how the characters fell from where they started coupled with some of Sondheim's greatest songs. Besides confusing the audience the other obstacles the show has built into this framing device is that in reality it's okay to see someone make the same mistake once, even twice but when you see them making the same mistake as all the characters happen to do in Merrily over and over again it leads to a growing resentment of them. Another issue is at the heart of the show is the argument art over commerce and which one leads to happiness. The leading character Franklin Sheppard choose commerce over art and is vilified by his friends for his choice yet though out the show his friends consistent steer him into that direction.
It was fascinating and deeply emotional watching this production of the show as I have such vivid memories even some might possibly say am haunted by the ghosts (to use Sondheim's masterpiece “Follies” as a comparison) by the Apple Tree production. I can still recall Rebecca McCauley's Navy Blue coat and how the strap of her purse would fall down as see sang the heartbreaking lines “Day After Day, After Day” in the classic “Not a Day Goes By” or Hollis Resnik opening the second act in a red dress that she had used in the Marriott's production of “Anything Goes” and her ability to give a master class with her bag vocal ticks and mannerisms that fit the character to a t and her fluid body movements during "The Blob" or how I took for granted Sean Grennan's ability to make an unlikeable character charming. I apologize if all this is coming across as I have a personal connection but truthfully what I learned Saturday night is you can hold tight to the presence of memories but look at the nuances with separate yet time enchanced weary eyes. It makes epic songs such as "Opening Doors" and "Our Time" land in way's that linger with the beauty of passing time. It confirms my belief that one of the biggest lies we hear in life is the saying "If I knew then what I know now I would change it." We wish would or could but quite possibly even with the knowledge we probably would make the same mistakes over and over again.
Hence I was able to see in this nuances that director Jessica Redish was able to create for this specific production such as in the opening silence of Jarrod Zimmerman standing on stage playing the piano and how this production was able to give a conclusion to the piece before any dialogue was spoken that wasn't in previous productions of the show that I've scene. Mr. Zimmerman in what is probably one of the hardest roles in Musical theater is able to suggest both leading man and character actor within the framework of a single song or leading line worked very hard in making the resistible role of Franklin Shepard acceptable if not always a hundred percent successful at being likeable. However the fault lies so much more within the role then with Mr. Zimmerman's portrayal of it. Even his unlikable theatrical brother Joey got to dance.
As his best friend and the second banana Charley Kringas Alan Schmuckler was much more successful at being able to toss off the anger, resentment, and life long love his character has though every movement of his dancing eyes to his failing arms. Mr. Schmuckler was able to shoot out and catch each one of these emotions all at the same moment within the context of the devastating “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Completing the trio as the long suffering Mary Flynn is Jessie Mueller. An actress who was otherworldly as Amalia in Writers Guild production of “She Loves Me” and just a few years ago nothing but youthful joy in “All Shook Up” at the Marriott. Anything I had seen her in previous could not prepare me for her work here. In the course of two hours she took you on an emotional roller coaster that went from breaking your heart to laughing out loud at her ability to toss off one liners. Her performance has now entered my memory books along with the work of fellow Chicago thespians Ms, Resnik (Song & Dance), Mrs. Gunn (Evita), Ms. Robertson (Kabuki Medea), Mrs. Santen (The Marriage of Bette & Boo), Mrs. Scrofano (Ruthless!), Mrs. Moniz (Anna Karenina), Ms. Banks (Lost in Yonkers), and Ms. Smith's (Trip to Bountiful) as the greatest female performances I've ever encountered on the Chicago theater scene. There simply was not one false moment in her heartbreak during “Like it Was” or her ferocious panther like delivery of “Now you Know” to close Act One.
In another delicious performance by Stephanie Herman who excludes star quality as Broadway Star Gussie Carnegie she is able to ground a potentially over the top character while singing the lovely “Growing Up” and the intricate “The Blob.” Ms. Herman whose work I've come to love since I saw her in Village Players other Sondheim show “Sunday in the Park with George” is able to stand out as a theatrical presence while delivering the goods in both voice and acting.
As Franklin Sheppard's first wife Beth, Dara Cameron lacked a bit on the vocal heft for such an iconic song as “Not a Day Goes By” however she hit all the emotional truths in the performance to where you cared for Beth as much as you pitied her. Another fine performance was delivered by Jerry Galante who was able to show the fall and then the reverse high of Joe starting at the bottom and by the end being at the top. Excellent work was also done by the ensemble who all were able to sift the time machine like a well oiled baseball team.
Ian Weinberger provided excellent music direction both on and off stage and made Sondheim's music seem easy which of course is no easy task and Jessica Snyders costumes and Nick Heggestad were able to shift though the massive undertaking of time travel as fluidly as water.
Director/Choreographer Jessica Redish had a difficult task of taking this extremely difficult show and like the title suggests move it along if one wished she was able to make the pace move a little faster, I was grateful she was able to make me honor the presence of my childhood past while realizing the nuances of my adult life and I would suggest to anyone to see this production while they can so years later they can reflect on the outlines of their lives because not everyone has to color within the lines as long as art has beauty to you.
“Merrily We Roll Along” plays through May 1 at The Music Theatre Company, located at the Karger Center, 1850 Green Bay Rd., Highland Park.