It’s a hit: The Music Theatre Company kicks things off in a big way with Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’

Jarrod Zimmerman, Jessie Mueller and Alan Schmuckler — three old friends in The Music Theatre Company’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

“We’re opening doors,
Singing, “Here we are!”
We’re filling up days
On a dime.
That faraway shore’s
Looking not too far.
We’re following every star —
There’s not enough time!”

– From the song “Opening Doors”
by Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim has said that the only autobiographical song he’s ever written is “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along — a song about three young friends trying to get their work produced in a town that’s not quite ready for them.

“It’s about me and Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock — it’s about all of us in the ’50s knocking on doors of producers and trying to get heard,” explained Sondheim in the 2010 revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

This song, which appears late in the second act of Merrily We Roll Along, is the heart this rarely-produced show — and it’s also the best moment in The Music Theatre Company‘s bang-up production, which also happens to be the debut of the Highland Park-based group (while the group has been around for a little over a year at their current venue, this is their first major production).

Most consider Merrily a flawed show — including the critics when it premiered on Broadway in 1981. Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it tracks the lives of Frank Shepard (Jarrod Zimmerman), Charley Kringas (Alan Schmuckler) and Mary Flynn (Jessie Mueller) — three friends who start off as an inseparable trio of happily starving artists (Frank and Charley and are a songwriting duo, Mary a novelist), and wind up three broken individuals, devastated by the spoils of success. On top of this, both the play and the musical tell this cautionary tale in reverse chronological order, so we’re introduced to three bitter people who, by the end of the play, are three fresh-eyed hopefuls, ready to take on the world.

“How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?”

It’s an intriguing concept, but emotionally counter-intuitive. For example, one of Sondheim’s most gut-wrenching songs, “Not a Day Goes By,” is given to Frank’s jilted wife, Beth (Dara Cameron), to sing to her philandering husband. But we have no emotional investment in Beth yet, because we’ve just met her. In the second act, we learn much more about her and her relationship with Frank — and the number begins to make emotional sense. In retrospect.

But these are the problems with Merrily, and you move past them. The brilliance in Sondheim’s work in numbers like “Opening Doors,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and even his overworked lyrics in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” overrides these flaws and keeps you emotionally and intellectually invested.

Did I mention this is my first time seeing this show? And I’m happy to report that The Music Theatre Company’s intimate production (their space seats around 100 people) was a perfect way to mark this Sondheim milestone. (For you Sondheads out there, you’ve probably figured out that they’re doing the 1993 version of the show.)

Folks: this production is brimming with talent. Zimmerman, Schmuckler and Mueller are among the finest musical theatre actors we have in this city, and here they are giving articulate, honest and ridiculously well-sung performances. Mueller, in particular, gets to demonstrate the most range as her character transitions (regresses?) from bitter drunk to a sassy, self-deprecating 20-something. (My only quibble is to lose the ill-fitting dress Mueller wears in the first scene — the hip padding is more than distracting.) In the critical supporting role, Stephanie Herman makes an ideal Gussie, the manipulative Broadway star who serves as the catalyst for Frank, Charley and Mary’s downfall.

But the most praise should go to director/choreographer and founding artistic director Jessica Redish. After speaking with her last month, I knew she had some things up her sleeve, and she’s more than delivered. Not only has she successfully uncovered the emotional truths of this potentially over-cynical show, but she also effectively uses the 11-person ensemble to cleverly transition scenes while simultaneously commenting on the action. Thanks to Redish’s hard work, The Music Theatre Company is a group to watch.

If you’re a Sondheim fan, do yourself a favor and see this production.

“Merrily We Roll Along” plays through May 1 at The Music Theatre Company, located at the Karger Center, 1850 Green Bay Rd., Highland Park. More info here >

Note: on Sunday, April 23 at 2pm, The Music Theatre Company will present a reading of the play, “Merrily We Roll Along,” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart on which the musical is based. Actors in the musical will play their corresponding role(s) in the play. The reading will be directed by Michael Weber and is free to the public.

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