Available Light never shirked from chances, and their first musical – beating much more established companies in town – doesn’t pander or dodge tough questions in any way. Sondheim’s much-maligned Merrily We Roll Along written with George Furth (book) based on the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, with its backwards-looking story structure starting at 1976 and ending in 1957, hadn’t been produced in central Ohio in 20 years, and then at Denison University. This production is a wonder, if you’re still doubting seeing it, go. Go. Go.
John Dranschak’s direction (assistant direction from Acacia Duncan) is perfect, using the space exactly right, keeping the focus on the main characters but also throwing you off with the chorus on the transitions, buying the production time to let the year-shifts sink in. Darin Keesing’s design and Dave Wallingford’s sound design are marvels, a minimal set of not-quite-abstracted doors and sound both that place it in its time but not of its time, not leaning too much on the crutch of easy period signifiers.
This show is about the corrosion of youthful ideals and the bitterness that arises when they don’t get corroded, much reminding me of the Cai Guo-Quiang exhibit I saw at the Guggenheim a few years ago, terracotta workers slowly less finished as you walked around the spiral until it was just raw material, raw potential. And because it starts in success and dissolution, the songs (and their mirror-songs) start out knottier and angrier and by the second act as these beautiful songs of optimism and youth ring out you’re looking for the cracks, the dark humor comes from how you know it all ends.
Of course any musical’s going to live and die by its stars, and Available Light’s always had a knack for matching the exact actor to a role, and they outdid themselves here. Ian Short plays Franklin Shepard, the one of the trio who leaves his friends in the dust by – if not “selling out”, because this show doesn’t trade in easy dichotomies without puncturing them at least a little – and another in Sondheim’s list of male leads who are basically ciphers, reactive but not truly active, at least onstage (see also Bobby from Company, Frederik from A Little Night Music, and Giorgio from Passion). The character’s confusion, the enough-self-awareness to understand why he’s being left, enough charm to sell himself the center of attention to the myriad people around him, but also enough awareness to think “Why can’t I just enjoy this success? Why does success need to be a problem?” All of that fuels a terrific performance that sells some of the most challenging scenes and songs in the show.
As good as Short is, even better are the other legs of the triangle, Nick Lingnofski as Charley Kringus, the purist who turns his insecurities outward when he thinks his partner’s leaving him in more than one sense. He hits an absolute home run on one of the sharpest indictments of the ambiguity around success Sondheim ever wrote,“Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and bringing a sweetness that belies the knowledge of what happens next to “Our Time” that keeps it from being all sentiment or swagger.
And best of all is Heather Carvel, lifting the character of Mary above another Dorothy Parker riff, and roaring through her piece of “Old Friends”, “Now You Know” and “Opening Doors”, and breaking every heart for miles on “Like It Was”. The most cutting and the most adrift, but played so it never feels like another cliché, it feels as fresh as tomorrow, and with a voice that slips in and out of joy and rage with the power of a blast furnace but doesn’t ever rely on classic Broadway belting.
Michelle Schroeder as Franklin’s first wife makes the absolute most out of her few scenes, maybe helped by her having the only thing in the show that ever approached a standard, “Not a Day Goes By”. Kim Garrison Hopcraft, as Gussie Carnegie, maybe one of the most misogynistic portraits Sondheim ever painted, even manages to get us close to understanding, manages to make us feel something other than contempt when the character walks on stage, and does it by not judging and giving the character a refreshing self-awareness, and killing her songs. But no one in the 20-person cast is bad, even people who mostly appear in the chorus transitions get moments to shine, particularly Ryan Kay as a waiter with a dream, and Elena Perantoni who damn near steals a scene she’s in with two sung lines and one spoken.
Anyone who’s ever had that feeling like the world’s at your feet, you and your friends are just about to be great, whoever’s watched that feeling disappear and had to try to find it somewhere else, whoever’s had those bullshit sessions on the roof and found one of the other people turned it into a better song or a complete novel and you had to choke back that jealousy. Anyone who remembers how fraught with possibility the summer nights were when they were 20 and how rare it seems you’re in touch with that any more. Anyone who wants to be inspired or just goddamn entertained, go see this. Hell, I’m going to see it a second time before it closes at the end of this weekend. http://avltheatre.com/1011/blog/category/shows/merrily/