Sunday, February 04, 2018

“Merrily” proves a flop can become a hit @ Lakeland Civic Theatre

In its initial run on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” was met with negative reactions.  Fortunately, that hasn’t discouraged some theatrical artistic directors to shun producing the musical.  A case in point is Lakeland Civic Theatre’s staging the script with wonderful results.

 “Merrily We Roll Along” is a musical adaptation of legendary George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy of the same name.   The book is by George Furth and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the same duo who gave us “Company.”

The story centers around Franklin Shepard, a talented composer of Broadway musicals, who, through egotism, greed, and a series of bad choices in relationships, has abandoned his friends and profession to become a shallow Hollywood producer.

The musical, like the play, is presented in a backwards order.  This initially confused many a critic and audience member.  The score also uses the unusual device of the chorus singing reprises of the title song to transition the scenes (and remind us of the year of the segment).  The musical sound of these reprises mirrors the moods of Shepard’s life, a creative device which some construed as making the song redundant and over-used. 

After 52 preview performances, the Broadway show ran only 16 performances, thus creating one of few Sondheim “flops.”

The initial production had problems from the start.  The cast consisted of unknown teenagers with little performance experience. Changes in the choreographer, the leading man, moving back of the opening night and the backward to forward plot line resulted in audience members walking out and bad reviews.

The story of the problems encountered in the original production is related in a documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.” It is directed by Lonny Price, who played a major role in the original musical.

Fortunately, for local audiences, Lakeland director, Martin Friedman, a Sondheim expert and devotee, has chosen a talented cast and staged an engaging production.

Handsome Eric Fancher charms as Franklin.  His strong vocalizations and effective acting make the character live.  Trey Gilpin gives the right balance to his portrayal of Charley, Franklin’s best friend and writing partner.  He does comedy and “put-upon” with nice ease and balance.  Amiee Collier, Franklin and Charley’s closet female friend, is convincing as a woman with a life-long crush on Franklin. In spite of becoming a successful writer, she turns to alcohol as an escape from her emotionally pain from unrequited love.

Highlight musical numbers include “Old Friends,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” and such classics as “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Going” and “Our Time.”

From Austin Kilpatrick’s setting, consisting of a back wall of crumpled sheets of play scripts and movable set pieces, to lighting designer Adam Ditzel’s mood setting lighting, to Jordan Cooper’s musical direction, almost everything works.  The exceptions are the uncreative choreography and confusing costume designs where some performers wear the same clothing during all the transitional years, while others are in and out of numerous costumes.

Capsule judgment:  It may have been a flop on Broadway, but “Merrily We Roll Along” is a hit at Lakeland Civic Theatre.  It’s definitely a must see!!!

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 and 2 on Sundays through February 18 at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.  (The college is only 10 minutes from the 90-271 split and worth the short drive!)