MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
United Players, Jericho Arts Centre, until February 11th
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Robert Blackburn
Hello, faithful reader of theatrical goings-on. If you read our January blog where we discussed the best of 2017 (which you really should), you would have seen I, Robert Blackburn naively say I have a soft spot for musicals. 'Merrily We Roll Along' by United Players has successfully pummeled that into unrecognisable mush and now I don't want to see another one all year.
To clarify, I don't want to see another musical that indulges in all of the worst musical theatre tropes I can think of. The mannequin statues, the singing to the audience instead of fellow characters, the bright and shiny rhubarbing - the look at me I'm acting style of acting, which means you're not acting and it's bad. It made me uncomfortable watching it and several times cringe at the sheer shallowness of it all.
The play started out flat and uninteresting and carried on from there. Caitlin Clugston, playing Mary Flynn, floundered off the top not being able to portray drunk convincingly because instead of just acting intoxicated and simply being obnoxious about it, she decided to slip on an approximation of what being drunk is like and the mask didn't fit. This closed off, invulnerable, veneer-laden performance was not limited to her and hampered the whole production.
Scott Walters, playing main character Franklin Shepherd, was so shiny and polished I could have buffed a car with him. I don't want to see smiling, waving rag-dolls. I want to see real people who happen to be singing. It's just another form of expression and shouldn't cease normal human behaviour. To his credit, Walters did try to reach for younger versions of himself as the play moved backwards in time but unfortunately, it resulted in more Kermit The Frog than a believable young twenty year old.
Merrily We Roll Along is Sondheim at his worst. It's self-indulgent (and more than likely semi-autobiographical), it is overly sappy and daytime-soap-drama in all the wrong places. It is no wonder the three main characters' friendship didn't last, none of them are decent people with any redeeming qualities from what I saw in this performance.
Ian Crowe who rounded out the trio, playing Charley Kringus, did much less to offend but as with the majority of the ensemble was all arms when it came to interacting with other characters. The amount of pointing and shoulder rubbing/tapping was preposterous, especially when they weren't the focus and had to be gabbing in the background. Have these actors ever talked to real humans at parties?
I would say saving grace here but it can't be saved, so I'll say the only positive from the night was Amy Gartner as Gussie Carnegie. The second she walked on her character was three-dimensional, informed by her physicality, movement and singing. None of it was overly “musical-theatre”, it was grounded in a reality that was believable and even better, entertaining.
My main takeaway from this show ultimately, is how could this year get any worse?
By Lillian Jasper
In its third annual offering of Sondheim, United Players presents Merrily We Roll Along, a semi-autobiographical time-bending tale about friendship and success. Though it doesn't quite hit the heights Company or Sunday In The Park With George, United Players' previous efforts, Merrily still has a lot going for it.
Chiefly, it sounds terrific. The 5-piece band led by music director Arielle Ballance makes this tricky score sound easy (anyone who’s played Sondheim knows this is an impressive feat). The ensemble of performers are clear and crisp in their delivery. There are some real gems of songs here - “Not A Day Goes By”, “Good Thing Going”, “Old Friends” and the particularly poignant “Our Time”, for anyone who’s ever been an idealistic artist who thought they could change the world.
The story is told in reverse, which could be confusing if it were not for the outstanding projections by Corwin Ferguson. Coupled with musical narrative transitions from members of the ensemble, the setting in time always clear. Though it initially seems like a convoluted gimmick, it becomes clearer as the show progresses why it’s told this way, seeing what the characters have lost to get to where they are.
At the centre of it all is Franklin Shepard, played by Scott Walters. He somehow makes Frank sympathetic and affable despite the fact that he keeps destroying the lives of the people he cares about. Ian Crowe is excellent as Charley Kringas, Frank’s collaborator. His performance of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” is a neurotic tour-de-force. Walters and Crowe have such terrific chemistry and it’s refreshing to see two grown men expressing platonic love for each other so freely and honestly. However, it means that Clugston sometimes seems to get left out. It’s a shame, as Clugston is a consistently excellent performer and her talents felt a bit wasted here. Her character Mary doesn’t really do much but drink, pine and talk about writing. Alexandra Quispe does a decent job as Franklin’s first wife Beth, but again the character doesn’t feel fleshed out enough to get a sense of who she really is. It’s Amy Gartner as Gussie who fares the best of the women - she’s larger than life, injecting energy and bombast into the proceedings with her sultry voice and acerbic wit. She also has the best costumes, an area that unfortunately varies wildly in quality. Costuming 16 people across two decades, especially from the 1950s - ‘70s is no easy task. Some costumes are absolutely perfect, some however simply don’t seem to be fitted properly to the actors that wear them or don’t match the era.
This is an ambitious show and it succeeds on many fronts. However, it’s not a musical you can just sit back and watch. If you pay attention, you will be rewarded with running gags, meta-jokes and cleverly woven tapestry of musical motifs. It’s technically brilliant and expertly executed. While the show as written isn’t perfect, that’s not the fault of the performers nor the production team. United Players have now consistently proven then can tackle Sondheim’s more complex and problematic works with the level of quality they deserve and I hope they continue to do so.