Christopher King has brought Merrily We Roll Along to life in Vancouver. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth,was originally a flop when it opened in 1981 making it a risky choice for theatre companies but the United Players of Vancouver have managed to highlight all the best parts of the musical. Merrily We Roll Along follows the lives of three friends: composer Franklin Shepard (Scott Walters), lyricist Charley Kringas (Ian Crowe), and writer Mary Flynn (Caitlin Clugston) and infamously tells the story of fame and compromise in reverse.
The show opens at a lively Hollywood party celebrating the release of Franklin Shepard’s new film. Frank is rich and successful but also unhappy and threatened by accusations of infidelity from his current wife, performer Gussie Carnegie (Amy Gartner). The plot moves backwards following the musical’s three central friends as struggling artists and introducing the audience to Gussie’s first husband Joe Josephson (Matt Ramer) and Frank’s first wife Beth Spencer (Alexandra Quispe). The hopeful finale “Our Time” closes the show with a note of optimism as Frank, Charley, and Mary meet for the first time. The show’s themes of looking back, as in the soaring “Like it Was,” and how we are defined by our choices come alive with the show’s backwards motion made clear through projections of dates at the Jericho Arts Centre.
In the United Players production directed by Christopher King, a live pit band on a raised level brings immediate energy to the performance. The singing is outstanding with tight harmonies from Scott Walters, Ian Crowe, and Caitlin Clugston and the musicians provide a full sound throughout the show. In the second act, musical director and pianist Arielle Ballance even joins the stage to play the grand piano in Franklin Shepard’s apartment. The costumes, designed by CS Ferguson-Vaux, accurately represent the show’s span of two decades and are well suited to the characters such as Gussie Carnegie’s glamorous black dress in the first scene. The minimalistic set leads to smooth transitions along with an excellent overall flow of the production while highlighting Corwin Ferguson’s useful projections for telling where and when we are. Although the plot of Merrily We Roll Along is not easily accessible unless audience members have ‘made it’ in Hollywood, the characters become more honest and relatable to dreamers young and old as the musical rolls along. The acting is well suited to the colourful style of the show, especially Caitlin Clugston’s remarkable performance.
Merrily We Roll Along runs at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery near Jericho Beach) January 11th-February 11th Thursday through Sunday. All performances are at 8pm except Sundays (Jan. 28, Feb. 4, Feb. 11) when there is a 2pm matinée only and no evening performance. Tickets are available at the door or can be purchased online here. There will be a talk back session after the show on January 25th.
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