SLOC Moves Us Merrily Through Their Latest Sondheim Production
The Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical, “Merrily We Roll Along” has a storied past. It opened inauspiciously in November 1981 to widely negative reviews and closed after only 16 performances. Even with a number of rewrites, it is a difficult show to follow as it plays backward. The show follows the life of Franklin Shepard, who we meet at his home after the opening of his latest smash hit movie in 1976. Shepard, beautifully portrayed by Michael Aniolek whose strong operatic voice is the lynchpin for the current Schenectady Light Opera production is conflicted and miserable in spite of all of his professional successes. We move back in time through the ’60s and late ’50s as we see the cast “youth-in” We watch as the show rewinds the lives of Franklin, his writing partner and best friend, Charley Kringas, and the third member of their Musketeers, Mary Flynn.
The show takes us back in history and answers the questions that are posed in previous scenes as to how the characters wound up in the situations they find themselves in. How a life filled with promise and idealized dreams at the show’s end, doesn’t always end up the way we had hoped or imagined. The show is pretty much like reading a novel from the last chapter to the first… it is confusing and sometimes takes a bit to follow; that is the innate problem with “Merrily We Roll Along”.
What is not confusing is how director Gary M. Hoffman has led his immensely talented cast through the trials and tribulations of its characters. One can not help but wonder if the show is rehearsed in reverse, at least initially, in order to allow the performers the opportunity to examine the growth change and challenges that they go through.
What is also undeniable is the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Fortunately, Sondheim’s work is in excellent hands with this cast. Gabriel Hage is dynamic and captivating as the heartbroken partner Charley Kringas. Perhaps more than any other character, we watch Charley’s disillusionment play out with sadness and a sense of loss from beginning to end as his friend sells out for money and fame. Hage telegraphs his pain and sense of loss both through his excellent acting and strong grasp and control of Sondheim’s music, no small feat for many trained professionals, but handled with deftness and aplomb by Hage particularly in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and his duet with Franklin, “Good Thing Going”.
Elizabeth Corey’s character Mary Flynn is another sad victim of time and disillusionment. Clearly, in love with Franklin from the onset to the end, she tends to drown her sorrows in an overabundance of alcohol and biting scathing comments to those around her. Watching Corey’s character evolve is much like watching an oncoming accident, you know it’s happening, there is nothing to do to stop it, and yet you are unable to look away. Her rich strong voice is a delight; masterfully handling many of the beautiful harmonies with Hage and Aniolek. The trios’ stirring renditions of “Old Friends” repeat throughout the show moving the plotline along as the lyrics change.
Rounding out the supporting cast are husband and wife duo John Meglino and Heather-Liz Copps as husband and wife Joe Josephson and Gussie Carnegie. They offer wonderful comic relief to the show and again two additional strong voices. Finally, Rebecca Flinker as Beth Spencer, Franklin’s first wife who we come to see as the play rolls backward, is the collateral damage in Franklin’s life. She has the magic moment in the production with the iconic “Not A Day Goes By” where she breaks the hearts of the audience with her stirring rendition.
The difficult vocals that Sondheim gives his performers are all well tackled with the cast of 14. Their blend of voices and stunning harmonics make this a show worth seeing. The choreography is clearly not the show’s strong point; the actors are not, for the most part, trained dancers and that does come across through the production. The dancing is somewhat stilted and forced; you can feel the performers’ lack of comfort as they manage to get through the steps. That is a minor point in the face of the overall production which presents a most enjoyable evening.
Technically, the production offers the audience some cheats to help stay on track; the company not only sings the years they are also projected on the rear wall just to help keep everything clear. Costume Designer Carol Brown adds her flair to the production with spot-on iconic looks that help guide the audience into the right setting at the right time.
It is always exciting to watch community theaters stretch themselves. When they tackle such productions and make it work, it is very gratifying to see. SLOC continues to impress in their 95th season with a very gratifying production of “Merrily We Roll Along”.
“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Thursday through Sunday through March 27. For information: www.sloctheater.org or call 518-730-7370.