Theater review: Production rolls along merrily, but bumpily too

There's something about Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's "Merrily We Roll Along" that still doesn

‘Merrily We Roll Along’

WHERE: Hubbard Hall, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge

WHEN: Through June 4

HOW MUCH: $25

MORE INFO: 677-2495, www.hubbardhall.org

Every young theater student is boastfully enthusiastic that they can fix the flop show. When Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” failed on Broadway in its initial production in 1981, scores of young theater geeks around the country saw gold and rolled up their sleeves to get to work to prove they knew how to make the show work. Even I picked up picked a pencil long ago and had a go.

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For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell’s preview of this show, click here.

What attracted me and others was the score — too good to be lost and relegated to a theatrical oddity in original cast album collections. Sondheim’s score is exciting. The lyrics are cuttingly emotional and the visceral impact overwhelming. With such a magnificent score, how could it fail? As in most similar situations, the book to the show took the bullet.

After more than two decades of tinkering by countless hopefuls, the script has been declared “finished and fixed.”

The Theater Company at Hubbard Hall, under the direction of Kevin McGuire, is giving this final version an energetic go, but, unfortunately, amid the cloud of eraser dust, the show still doesn’t satisfy.

There is no argument that Sondheim’s score to “Merrily We Roll Along” is one of his most heartfelt and revealing. The excitement and frustration at staring at a blank piece of paper and beginning to find your own voice in “Opening Doors,” the smash-up of collaboration and disappointment of friends in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” and the want of what never honestly existed in “Like It Was” are all intensely visceral and potent to the core. And the show concludes with one of the most uplifting and inspiring anthems to art and the power of vision — “Our Time.”

Odd structure

There is also no argument as to why the show failed. The problem is the odd structure of the piece. Based on a flop show by the otherwise golden comedy team of Kaufman and Hart, Furth and Sondheim found themselves attracted to the original play, not just by its wry social comment, but by its crafty structure. Telling the story of how a man lost his ideals, friends and talent as he sold each off for the cash and fame that enticed and seduced him was not groundbreaking, but telling the story in reverse chronological order was. Starting with the middle-aged man looking at his ruined life, looking back through a series of scenes, Furth and Sondheim and producer Hal Prince thought they could fix this everyman story by adding an underscore and an update. What they added — the music — works just fine. The story they based it on still doesn’t.

The cast at Hubbard Hall gives it the old college try and, oddly, somewhat succeeds with the drama, but stumbles with the vocals. Assisted by a top-notch, but overly loud band, under the direction of Richard Cherry, few in the show have the vocal chops to get the score to soar. The core trio of friends, Frank, Charley and Mary, are still the show’s focus, but here only Meg Ward’s Mary makes the grade. Ward balances the character’s loss with her sarcasm and finds the true haunt in “Like It Was.” Amy Northup as the vixen secretary turned Broadway star Gussie Carnegie, and Kara Cornell’s emotionally battered Beth, both knock out the vocals with distinction with their respective “Growing Up” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Peter Delocis’ cigar-chomping producer, Colleen Lovett’s antsy agent and the multi-faceted Tony Pallone all distinguish themselves from the so-called “blob” of Frank’s hangers-on with just the right amount of attitude.

Technically, the show is a mixed bag. Patricia Reilly’s costumes are a riotous and perfect fun fashion show of past issues of Vogue, but are hard to pick out in the dim lighting. McGuire’s direction of the drama is spot on, but the pace lags toward the end of the evening, especially the last number, which is turned from a paean into a processional.

Is the script a vastly improved version than the one my theater geek friends and I tried to fix in our production in 1983? Thankfully yes, but it still flummoxes and flounders. But what attracted then, still attracts now — Sondheim’s score.

Now, if we can just fix the focus in that first scene in the first act, and the lead in to the divorce scene in Act 2, and the . . .

Where’s my pencil sharpener?

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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