Chicago Theatre Review
Merrily We Roll Along
George Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote a play with a very unusual, innovative structure. Their comic drama told the story of a playwright who’s hosting an opening night party for his latest, successful comedy. But the audience discovers that his life is empty, petty, loveless and ultimately unfulfilling. The novelty of the play is that it progresses in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1934 and ending in 1917. The audience is thus able to see how this man, bit by bit, began compromising his integrity and principles in order to become a success. He loses his best buddy and collaborator; drives his best female friend to become an alcoholic; destroys his marriage, and loses the love and admiration of his son.
In 1981 composer Stephen Sondheim collaborated with book writer George Furth and adapted the Kaufman and Hart play into a musical. They updated the play to 1976 and continued backwards until 1957. Sondheim’s musical tells about Frank Shephard, the former musical composer King of Broadway, who’s abandoned his friends, family and ideals to become a movie producer. Like the play, the musical opens at the height of Frank’s Hollywood success and moves backwards in time, offering the highlights of his past that produced the man he’s become in the present.
This fascinating theatrical work is now considered a cult musical. When it opened on Broadway in 1981, Hal Prince’s lavish production only ran for 16 performances, following 52 previews. That production won the 1982 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics of a new musical. There have been a number of revivals, new adaptations and concert versions of this musical, both in New York City and around the world. Sondheim even contributed a few new songs for some of the incarnations.
In Artistic Director Michael Weber’s wonderful, much anticipated production, audiences will be seeing the 1994 version of this musical. Some of the music is different from the the original version that starred Jim Walton as Frank Shephard with Lonny Price and Ann Morrison as his best friends, Charley and Mary. In Weber’s terrific production, Chicago favorite leading man, Jim DeSelm, blazes a trail across the sky, starring as Frank; the always masterful, many-talented Matt Crowle deliciously delights as Charley; and Neala Barron is magnificent, a showstopping and poignant leading lady, as Mary.
Other talented performers in this large cast include Aja Wiltshire as Frank’s lovely, encouraging first wife, Beth; Keely Vasquez as his theatrical second wife, Gussie Carnegie; David Fiorello as wheeler-dealer theatrical producer, Joe Josephson; and young Zachary Scott Fewkes, who’s excellent as Frank, Jr. The production also features a multitalented ensemble of more than a dozen triple threats who play multiple roles.
Sondheim’s score never sounded more beautiful than here, under the sensitive direction of Aaron Benham. Christopher Pazdernik’s sharp musical staging allows several of the numbers to move with especial brilliance. Bill Morey’s colorful period costumes help delineate each year, as do Anthony Churchill’s projections. The Great Room scenic design, co-created by Jeffery D. Kmiec and Greg Pinsoneault, provides ample playing area for such a large company and nicely accommodates the musical’s many scenes. Seemingly inspired by one of Sondheim’s best songs in the show, “Opening Doors,” the set contains a half dozen or more entrances and exits. Behind the massive set are are nestled Mr. Benham and his talented seven-member orchestra, although Mr. DeSelm and a few others in the cast also accompany on the piano, as well.
The score is filled with much melodic enjoyment. The title song offers an ear worm that audiences won’t be able to shed for a while. “Old Friends” and “Like It Was” blend to form another haunting medley that’s hard to forget. The patter song “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” recalls the Camelot days of the Kennedys. And then there’s the breathtaking, “Not a Day Goes By,” sung with great sensitivity by Aja Wiltshire, that will melt every theatergoer’s heart.
Once again Porchlight Music Theatre has pulled out all the stops and brought Chicago a magical production of a show that many theatergoers will be enjoying for the first time. For those musical aficionados, this will be a bittersweet blast from the past and a rare opportunity to see this masterpiece cult musical performed live in the Windy City.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 26-March 11 by Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-777-9884 or by going to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.