Los Angeles Theater Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (Actors Co-op)

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by Tony Frankel on October 9, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

ALTHOUGH BUMPY,
MERRILY DOES INDEED ROLL ALONG

Because Actors Co-op’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along whirls along like a carnival ride, you would think the centrifugal force of Richard Israel’s staging would have actors flying from the stage. The opening number, “That Frank” has players smoothly whipping around at just the right moment to scream out a line so that they are heard over the orchestra behind the stage. The vertiginous staging is a little too manic, creating some performances that verge on soap opera. Yet, with the magic of a wonderful score and the company’s enthusiasm, we walk away from this ride exhilarated and emotional.

George Furth’s book follows three stalwart show-biz friends from their 1957 meeting on a rooftop in New York all the way to a disastrous party in Bel Air in 1976; but the device, following a script by Kaufman and Hart, is that their story is played backward. Considered by some theatre aficionados as one of Sondheim’s best scores, the original 1981 production was plagued by miscasting and a nasty dose of cynicism in the libretto. A cleaned-up 1993 revival removed much of the bitterness that had left a sour taste for original viewers. That is the production revived today.

The book, for better or worse, still leaves us melancholic because it ends (or rather begins) with brilliant composer Franklin Shepard (Brent Schindele) having sold out his artistry to become a wealthy movie maker. His novelist friend Mary (Leslie Spencer), who has always been in love with Frank, becomes a raging alcoholic and rants about Frank’s failings before falling down drunk. Lyricist Charley (Matt Bauer), Frank’s ex-writing partner, is out of his life permanently. The chorus asks Frank to look back and figure out where it all went wrong. It is because the last three numbers of the show are so full of optimism and youthful vitality that we leave darkened and uplifted at the same time.

Actors Co-op is a most professional company and has consistently delivered wonderful productions. Merrily is wholeheartedly recommended, especially for those who have not seen it before, even though the elements are uneven. For example, Mr. Bauer’s Charley has a stand-out moment with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” but he veers on shtick later on in the show. John O’Brien is well-cast as producer Joe, but his voice is not up to the challenging material. Gina D’Acciaro, as Gussie, doesn’t seem like the kind of sex-kitten Frank could fall for, but she does fit the bill as a big, brassy, Broadway belter. Mr. Schindele’s Frank has a wonderful voice and moving, emotional moments.

The orchestra mostly succeeds under the direction of Patrick Burns, but still struggles to completely realize the score, which clearly contains some of Sondheim’s trickiest music. They also need to pull back considering that the actors are not miked.

Yes, this is one of those productions that needs to mature. But that does not mean you will leave discontented. Indeed, I am glad I saw it. There are potholes in the road of this production, yet it manages to roll along to a satisfying end.

photos by Greg Bell

Merrily We Roll Along
Actors Co-op
David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St.
(on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30; some Sat’s at 2:30
ends on October 24, 2010
for tickets: 323.462.8460 or visit Actors Co-op

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