Given that I really didn't know what to expect when I attended the first performance of The Gallery Players' Merrily We Roll Along, it's a pleasure to report that this staging of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical is solid overall and exceptionally fine in several respects. If you're already a fan of the show, you won't want to miss it; and if you've never seen Merrily, this production is more than good enough to make you understand why so many of us love it so much.
The Gallery Players are presenting the show not in its original form, which can no longer be licensed for performance, but in the 1994 York Theatre Company version that incorporated various revisions made to the script and score of Merrily over the years following the show's failure on Broadway in 1981. Most of the changes to the score serve to clarify the heartbreaking story of the dissolution of a decades-long friendship between composer Franklin Shepard, his best buddy and songwriting partner Charley Kringas, and their loyal and steadfast writer friend Mary Flynn.
Though Furth's revised book also has many compelling moments, it remains flawed. Lord knows, it must have been an exceedingly difficult task to write expository scenes for a show that moves backwards in time from scene to scene as this one does, and much of the essential information on Frank, Charley, and Mary is clumsily communicated -- especially in the first (last) scene. The running gag of keeping Charley's wife Evelyn off-stage until the final scene makes for some strained dramaturgy, as when Furth asks us to believe that Charley would stick around till the end of the opening night performance of his first Broadway show with Frank after having sent his pregnant wife off to the hospital in a cab to have their first child.
There's also at least one really sloppy error in the show's chronology: In the 1960 scene, a fellow approaches Joe Josephson in hopes that the producer will put some money behind his latest invention, a telephone answering machine. Joe poo-poohs the idea and mentions that, instead, he's going to bankroll the development of a 3-D movie process. The problem with this is that, after a brief period of popularity in the early '50, the 3-D film craze died out totally by no later than 1954. As far as I recall, the original version of Merrily contained few if any references to changes in pop-culture, politics, etc. from the '50s through the '70s; it's okay that Furth chose to add some such references in order to earn a few easy laughs, but one wishes that he had been more historically accurate in doing so.
Still, despite its occasional clunkiness, the book of Merrily is good enough to provide a solid framework for Sondheim's great score. Highlights include the justly famous, wistful ballads "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going," plus brilliant character songs ("Old Friends," "Opening Doors") and rousing ensemble numbers ("Now You Know," "Our Time.") The Gallery Players production is notable for fine musical direction by Michael Smith; the "orchestra" is limited to piano (played by Smith), bass (Warren Adler), and drums (Ed Fians), but I've always felt that Merrily sounds better with reduced instrumentation than almost any other Sondheim show, so this is not a huge disappointment. Also, the fact that the orchestra is so small and is placed off-stage right behind some flats allows the cast members to perform without amplification. (My only quibble: the bass and drums are a bit too loud in comparison to the piano.)
The best news about this Merrily is the excellence of its three leading players, sensitively and intelligently directed by J.V. Mercanti. Michael Hunsaker, whom you may have seen Off-Broadway in Listen to My Heart earlier this season, skillfully charts (in reverse!) Frank Shepard's progression from young, brilliantly talented idealist to bitter, cynical, middle-aged sell-out. Aside from his strong acting ability, Hunsaker offers the best sung performance of this role that I've ever heard, either live or on record. As Mary Flynn, the woman who loves Frank for decades without his ever realizing it, Anne Gaynor is wonderfully empathetic and handles such songs as "Old Friends" and "Now You Know" with aplomb.
The most controversial performance in the show is given by Nicholas Sattinger, who plays Charley Kringas as hyperactive and quite obviously, stereotypically Jewish. It's a bold, committed characterization that quickly won me over. Unfortunately, Sattinger flubbed the lyrics in two of his numbers on opening night: He lost his place and jumped verses at least three times in the tour-de-force musical monologue "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and he dropped so many lines in "Opening Doors" that, at one point, the number nearly ground to a halt before Hunsaker and Gaynor saved it. One can only hope that Sattinger ran right home and listened to the original Broadway cast album of Merrily about 300 times in order to insure that this sort of thing won't happen again.
As for the show's featured performers: Steve Velardi is warm and funny as Joe Josephson while Molly Sorohan is properly predatory as his wife Gussie (who eventually throws him over for Frank). Erin Williams as Beth, Frank's first wife, sings "Not a Day Goes By" very well but, oddly, her acting is less persuasive in her songs than in her dialogue. Also, her decision not to do a Jackie Kennedy impersonation in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" works against the humor of what's usually a hilarious number.
The physical production is a triumph over limited means. The costumes, provided by Melissa Estro and Claire Hayes, are spot-on (except those for the aforementioned "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" bit) and Todd M. Reemtsma's lighting is entirely adequate but for some less-than-terrific follow spot work. Worthy of special praise is the set design of Tim Amberlin, which makes ingenious use of modular units of curved steps and triangular flats.
There are little things about this production that contribute to its vague air of non-professionalism. When the main characters toast each other in one scene, why do they drink from empty champagne glasses? Couldn't the company have invested in some sparkling apple cider? And when a paparazzo snatches a photo of Frank and Beth during their divorce trial, wouldn't the moment have been more effective if a flash bulb actually went off? Still, these are petty annoyances. In presenting Merrily We Roll Along, The Gallery Players got most of the hard stuff right. Please don't let the fact that the theater is located in Brooklyn keep you away from this worthy production; after all, it's Park Slope, not Melbourne.