Trying things, being flexible, bending with the road.
Adding dreams when the others don’t last.
Growing up, understanding that growing never ends.
Like old dreams, some old dreams.
Like old friends.
“Growing Up” from “Merrily We Roll Along” by Stephen Sondheim
It’s no secret in saying getting older means growing up. However, what becomes painfully clear as we do grow older is the decisions we make become tougher. As the saying goes: If you haven’t made enemies, you haven’t stood your ground.
Never is this hard-hitting life lesson more fully realized than in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s legendary flop-turned-cult musical, Merrily We Roll Along – a show where three close friends – Charlie (Matt Crowle), Frank (Jim DeSelm) and Mary (Neala Barron) – fall distant as time marches on and priorities shift (or, it could be argued: compromised). Additionally, the story is told in reverse chronological order — a novel concept borrowed from the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play the musical was based on.
Merrily, which has received a sort of mini renaissance thanks to the use of it in the Oscar-buzzy “Lady Bird,” is rarely produced. My last time – and first time – seeing this musical was a powerfully compacted, 100-seat production that featured a soon-to-be-discovered Jessie Mueller who’d go on to Tony Award-winning fame.
It was a weird show then, and a weird show now. You meet the characters at their worst and are asked to root for them – due to the conceit of the show – as their dreams grow distant, yet their hope and energy blooms. Merrily will always have issues – but it sticks in my craw nonetheless given the stunning way Sondheim explores how we grapple with the counter-intuitive notion of letting go of what’s good to grow.
And Porchlight’s very satisfying production still hits me in the gut. Particularly due to Barron’s performance as Mary Flynn – the peacemaker of the trio. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance so brutally honest. She leaves it all out there on the Ruth Page stage. Also: her voice is a marvel.
Other standouts include Aja Wiltshire as Frank’s wife Beth, who has perhaps the best number in the show (“Not a Day Goes By”), but delivered in a strange and abrupt context, requiring us to empathize with a woman whom we’ve just met, yet she shares a deep history with the lead (again, an artifact of the show’s structure). DeSelm and Crowle also impress in two of the most difficult roles in the Sondheim canon (Crowle still has work to do with the early act one showstopper “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” but all the pieces are there to nail it over time).
Aaron Benham’s music direction navigates perhaps Sondheim’s trickiest score – particularly the ensemble work – with precision. And Michael Weber and Christopher Pazdernik’s staging does the hard work of catapulting the action backwards without losing momentum.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s Merrily We Roll Along plays through March 11 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. More information here.