Sterling TheatreWorks tries to solve a ‘problem musical’ 

As is the rule and distinction with all Stephen Sondheim musicals, "Merrily We Roll Along" has lots and lots of words, some multisyllabic, many pregnant with meaning. In a kind of theatrical-musical miracle, every one of those words came through clearly from the stage at TheatreWorks’ premiere of the musical Saturday evening in Mountain View.

The accomplishment — by stage director Robert Kelley, musical director William Liberatore, exemplary diction from the whole cast, and a mostly non-overmodulating sound designer, Cliff Caruthers — is all the more notable because "Merrily" is full of fast duets and trios, tricky chorus numbers and ensemble pieces with treacherous tempo changes.

If anyone can make a "problem musical" work, it’s Kelley, with 16 previous Sondheim productions under his belt, some done as well as anywhere on- or off-Broadway. And, with all that clarity and a nearly flawless direction, it’s close — but alas, no cigar. It’s tough to get big smoke going with a "show in shambles," which is what the "pro-Sondheim" New York Times said after the 1981 premiere.

The show is about Franklin Shephard, a composer who becomes an industry (something like Andrew Lloyd Webber). He is not a particularly interesting character, and he has a hole where his heart should be. The same observations can be made of "Merrily."

Backward runs the story, from 1976 to 1957, from a Bel Air mansion of success and rancor to a Manhattan apartment house where young, talented people watch Sputnik in the sky. Their two-decades-long descent to the height of success is presented in terms of loss, betrayal, a kind of cosmic Faustian bargain — which is out of proportion and sounds "too theatrical" to work. Some of the songs move the listener, but the problems of Franklin Shephard, Inc. probably do not.

Damon Kirsche is Shephard, Robert Brewer plays Charley (the lyricist who "doesn’t sell out"), and Molly Bell is Mary, who holds the trio together through the years. All three give excellent theatrical and musical performances, Kirsche meeting the tough challenge of bringing a lifeless character to life, but Bell is operating on a plateau high above anything you’ll find in "regional theater." She sings, dances, acts and charms to perfection, even when weighed down by some of Fumiko Bielefeldt’s period costumes. (Was fashion really this awful back in those days?)

The large cast gives an excellent ensemble performance while shining individually as well. One of the best voices belongs to Lianne Marie Dobbs, whose star turn in the show’s best song was undermined by the direction.

"Not a day goes by" is pure heartache, regret and sorrow, a quiet torch song with repressed anger, but in this production,the song is belted out, fortissimo, nothing subtle, nothing hidden and complex. (In the original "Merrily" previews and a subsequent revised version, the song was performed by Frank, rather than by his soon-to-be ex-wife; when he doesn’t get to sing this, the main character is further stripped of emotion.)

"Merrily" is graced by Julian Hornik as Frank Jr. — a scary-good 11-year-old with flair, panache and presence. His future career may well make a better story than "Merrily."

Merrily We Roll Along

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: 8 p.m. Wednesays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 7:30 p.m. today and April 17; 2 p.m. Saturday and April 21; 7 p.m. April 22; closes April 29

Tickets: $42 to $62

Contact: (650) 903-6000 or www.theatreworks.org

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