Stephen Sondheim’s most underrated musical “Merrily We Roll Along” took the stage of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre the weekend before Spring Break. Ann Arbor’s newest professional theatrical company, Runyonland Productions (founded by School of Music, Theatre and Dance senior Thomas Laub), headed this ambitious project.
“Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical with a book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, is based on a play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The musical follows the journey of Franklin Shepard (SMTD senior Liam Allen), a world renowned Broadway composer who abandoned his friends and collaborators for the commercialized lifestyle of Hollywood. The musical starts at the height of his Hollywood career and works its way backwards in time, showing snapshots of Shepard’s most important relationships — with his then wife Beth (SMTD senior Emilie Kouatchou), his major collaborators lyricist Charley (SMTD junior Wilson Plonk) and writer Mary (SMTD sophomore Erica Ito).
In past experiences with this show, I have left feeling rather saddened by the life of Franklin Shepard. However, under the direction of SMTD senior Megumi Nakamura, I left Runyonland Production’s version of “Merrily” feeling rather, well, merry. Nakamura's message in her director’s note at the beginning of the program that “the idea that no matter where we are in our lives and no matter the mistakes we have made, it is never too late to take responsibility for your choices and move forward with positivity, love, and hope” shines through tremendously in her take on this musical.
The actors’ portrayal of these classically tragic characters helped a great deal in bringing Nakamura’s optimistic perspective on “Merrily” to life. In particular, Ito’s portrayal of Mary had a glimmer of hope that I have yet to see brought to life in many actresses take on this famous role. Ito brought a sense of spunk and ambition to the character, giving Mary, a character that can easily be portrayed one dimensionally, a sense of emotional resonance and depth. In addition to being a captivating actor, Ito’s musical talents also shined through during her performance, particularly in her song closing Act One, “Now You Know.” This was perhaps my favorite number of the evening. Ito’s combined acting chops and musical talents allowed her performance to be among the most exciting on the stage.
The night I went to see “Merrily,” Wilson Plonk (Charley) was unable to perform vocally due to illness. While Plonk physically took to the stage, the vocals behind Charley’s lines and songs were delivered backstage by Runyonland producer Thomas Laub. Due to Plonk’s commitment and Laub’s impeccable timing, I often forgot the character of Charley was being dubbed over at all. This is a true testament to the amount of professionalism behind each of these actors, as well as Runyonland Productions as a whole. Another vocal talent worthy of mention was Kouatchou. All of Kouatchou’s vocals were spot on — she was perfectly cast for her role.
The musical talents of the entire cast and orchestra were one of the driving forces of this production. At times when the blocking got a bit muddy and the dialogue was not well supported, the story was always clearly delivered through the music. The orchestra and the ensemble complimented one another well, remaining in harmonious balance through the production. Musically, there was not a weak member of the entire orchestra and cast.
However, while everything was technically there, there were times when the emotion behind the songs was lacking. While the technicalities of the music are difficult to get right in Sondheim, the tragically beautiful stories behind the songs in “Merrily” are even harder to relay to an audience. This production of Merrily had emotional resonance for most of the songs, but some of them were lacking in depth.
Yet the moments shared between Allen, Plonk and Ito seemed to make up for it. The chemistry between the three actors clearly showed each time Allen, Plonk and Ito were on stage with one another. The relationships of these characters are tragically flawed and intensely intricate. The actors’ portrayal of these relationships allowed it to be easy for the audience to root for a seemingly hard-to-root-for friendship. This caused the last scene of the show, in which the three are together for the first time, to be particularly heartwarming.
When going to the theatre, I can always tell that I’ve seen a worthwhile production if I’ve left the experience feeling changed for the better. I left “Merrily We Roll Along” with a tune in my head and hope in my heart, which is something not everyone finds on their average Friday evening. I look forward to Runyonland Productions’ future shows, especially if they are anything like “Merrily We Roll Along.”