Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Good Thing Going: Berkshires Merrily Successfully Navigated the Show's Challenges

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Good Thing Going: Berkshires Merrily Successfully Navigated the Show's Challenges

Article excerpt

Over the years Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along has been logically compared to Sondheim mentor Oscar Hammerstein II's equally problematic Allegro, a piece whose idiosyncratic storytelling has perplexed directors for decades. Like Hammerstein, Sondheim has spent equally as long trying to figure out what went wrong by creating new material or allowing others to make patches along the way.

Since its 1981 Broadway debut, Merrily's part cautionary tale, part celebration of the unbridled idealism of youth has sought a framework that neither confuses the first-time viewer nor diminishes its reproving message. For Sondheim fans, it can be easy to forget that any director of Merrily must peer through the lens of the firsttime audience member who is processing a play with a reverse chronology.

It is not a challenge to be taken lightly. Audiences of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play had just as much difficulty following the story's road map long before Sondheim and George Furth made it sing. Despite the revisions and reduction of the number of scenes over the years to Merrily - many of which have provided more clarity - there are still loose ends. The Sharon Playhouse, a summer stock company in Connecticut at the foot of the Berkshires, did well navigating the variety of unresolved ideas - for example, the added element of Frank Jr., which creates as many problems as it solves - in a production (July 15-19, 2015) staged by the theatre's artistic director, John Simpkins.

One of the most attention-grabbing facets of the Sharon production was the use of the central stage space for the 10-piece orchestra, expertly conducted by Eric Kang. At first it appeared odd to take up such a significant amount of real estate for a staging that was not a concert version. However, these concerns were quickly dispelled in Simpkins' competent production.

The inclusion of the band made the numerous party scenes feel, well ... more like a party. Yet when the book scenes kicked in, these frontand- center instrumentalists were just as easily disregarded. The stage arrangement did, however, have one significant drawback: It restricted Jennifer Werner's choreography, often limiting the ensemble of collegiate performers to simply "circling the band."

The production expected much from its audience, since the visual markers of our journey from 1981 back to 1957 were scant. …

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