SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – Spoiler alert: The musical playing at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Theater consists of spoilers, one right after another. It is also funny, sad, and fiercely entertaining. “Merrily We Roll Along” is Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flop reanimated as a stunning success. The musical, inspired by a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, begins at the denouement and works its way backwards, tracing the present circumstances of its lead characters to their earliest roots as naïve young people out to conquer the world. In its present incarnation, the audience is deftly led through this novel storytelling by pointed musical transitions and clever transformations of the sets that punctuate each backward turn of the calendar. The result is an exciting evening of musical theater that rings in the ears and remains in the mind.
After a prologue that sets the stage thematically, the play opens at a 1976 party with the spotlight on three once-close friends: Franklin Shephard, a composer; Charles Kringas, a lyricist; and Mary Flynn, a drama critic. Frank is a once-promising musician who has sold out to Hollywood and adopted a life of wealth and womanizing. Charley has struggled to remain true to his art and labors in relative obscurity. Bitter and sharp-tongued Mary, still carrying a decades-old torch for the unattainable Frank, has married the bottle instead. With each scene change, we are taken a few years further back to learn how their friendship lapsed and the dreams died, until we arrive at a rooftop in 1957 as Sputnik passes over and the starry-eyed trio sing the sweetly optimistic “Our Time” as they look forward to taking on the world.
From the polish and perfection of the staging and the on-point performances of the cast, one would never guess that the London offering of this musical was Maria Friedman’s directorial debut. Fresh from a smashing run on London’s West End, Friedman has brought to Boston some of her cast and backstage colleagues and all of the brilliance to recreate an exciting musical experience.
The cast combines veterans of the London run with local talent, and the performances are all strong, from Huntington regular Aimee Dougherty as aggressive love interest Gussie Carnegie to local boy-wonder Cameron Levesque, who belts out the notes as Frank Junior with professionalism that belies his young age. But the extra kudos must go to standouts Eden Espinosa, as a boozy and brilliant Mary Flynn, the gluon of the nucleus who does her best to sustain the friendship, and Damian Humbley, who wears the role of Charley Kringas as if it were his own skin. His performance of the challenging song “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” originally written for Lonny Price in the 1981 Broadway production, was so stunning at the Press Opening Night that the packed-house audience could not stop cheering and applauding after its closing notes.
The best acting and singing are only as good as the material, and Sondheim’s distinctive music and intelligent lyrics along with the book by George Furth have evolved over the decades into a compelling classic of the musical theater. Like much of Sondheim’s work, “Merrily We Roll Along” is entertainment at its best, not merely for its robust form and content, but also because it is about something both universal and personal.
The result is an evening of laughs and flashes of recognition, of lush musical moments and refined reflection as we are reminded of our own broken-field runs through life, taking one path over another, sustaining some friendships and not others, following dreams and letting go. See it for the music or see it for the musings, but do see it.
“Merrily We Roll Along” is at the Huntington Avenue Theater in Boston through October 15.
Larry Constantine is a freelance journalist and photographer. The Intaglio Imprint, his tenth novel under his pen name, Lior Samson, was published in September.