It Started out like a Song

By Pender, Rick | The Sondheim Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

It Started out like a Song


Pender, Rick, The Sondheim Review


Doyle's Cincinnati production uses Merrily's musical imagery

John Doyle's productions of musicals by Stephen Sondheim require some work to appreciate, but the rewards are worth the effort. The British director is quick to admit that when he stages something, it's through his own filter and with a very distinct perspective. It's best if you already have some familiarity with a show Doyle has staged before you watch the results of his intensive rehearsal process with a company of musically talented actors for productions such as Sweeney Todd or Company. That was true for his most recent outing, an insightful if slightly chilled rendition of Merrily We Roll Along at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (March 3-31, 2012).

Let's start with the east: Doyle chose Malcolm Gets to play jaded composer Franklin Shepard, whose life has gone off the tracks, and Becky Ann Maker as his disillusioned, addictive friend, the writer Mary Flynn. Both played these roles in the past: Gets was Frank at the York Theatre in New York City in 1994, while Baker portrayed Flynn for Arena Stage in 1990 in Washington, D.C. Gets is now 49 and Baker is 59; with Daniel Jenkins, cast as Frank's anxious writing partner, Charley Kringas, they were each substantially older than the characters they played. They were convincing as people who are all too painfully aware of the dissatisfaction success has brought their way.

As Merrily receded in time, the angry, frustrated veneers of Frank, Mary and Charley receded until the culminating, concluding rooftop scene of optimistic youth. No effort was made to make them younger other than brighter attitudes and simpler, happier interactions, with occasional glimpses of "future" challenges.

Doyle omitted the intermission, so none of the east of 13 ever left the stage or changed a costume during the 105 minutes of continuous performance. If actors were not involved in a scene, they were providing musical accompaniment, particularly Gets, a fine pianist. (Baker played various percussive accompaniments and had one outing on the string bass, while Jenkins took on mostly the trumpet, but occasionally an Irish drum and whistle, as well as a mandolin.)

The maturity of the actors produced a result I've never witnessed in a production of Merrily: The bitterness of their dissolution at the onset slowly softened, making them more and more likable as the performance progressed. By the time we "met" them - when they discovered one another in 1957, waiting to see Sputnik in the early morning dawn - they were sweet innocents. The fact that we knew who they would become added a profound poignancy to their story.

Doyle's modest reduction of the script kept the narrative moving swiftly back to the past, never allowing much time to dwell on the darkness. Instead, we kept seeing more and more of these characters' likable qualities and perhaps understandable flaws. Merrily's script has numerous elements of foreboding - things we know will happen, from Beth's encouragement of Frank to do all he can to court favor with the rapacious Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Leenya Rideout was slinky and sensuous even as she played a string bass and a violin) to the gentle satire of their nightclub number, "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," when we know that tragedy lurked in the not-too-distant future for the Kennedys.

Using Doyle's now familiar actor/ musicianship technique worked in some surprising ways with Sondheim's unusual score, which reinforced the show's reverse chronology by offering reprises before the "original" number. Beth's wounded "Not a Day Goes By" as she and Frank are about to divorce returns in a more naïve rendition that they sing when they are engaged, with Mary offering a yearning counterpoint. …

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