By PAM HARBAUGH
The Henegar Center for the Arts delivers a bonanza of talent in its production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”
It is based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, which has 91 characters; and its Broadway debut also had nine complete sets designed by Jo Mielziner.
But George Furth, who wrote the book for the Sondheim musical, did quite a bit of slicing and dicing. Here, a cast of 20 tells the story of successful Hollywood songwriter Frank Shepard as he goes back in time to his Broadway beginnings. In peeling back the years, we see Frank and his two best friends – writers Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn – shed years of crippling cynicism and return to the sweet, starry-eyed innocence of three young people who more than anything want to succeed on Broadway.
In returning to this naïve core, these young people unwittingly reveal the mistakes they will make. You can’t escape this underlying current as it guides you to consider your own life through this perspective. Yes, life has changed you, but can you remember those early passions? Are you being true to them or have you abandoned them?
Directed with slick, high-concept style by Hank Rion, the production is minimal. A small orchestra (led by the crazy-talented Kevin McNaughton) sits upstage. The only “scenery” is lighting reflecting on gleaming silvery scaffolding flanking the acting area.
That’s it. This production is shaved down in order to let shine a basic element – the talent.
Ben Morgan is handsomely and earnestly in tune as Franklin Shepard. He rightly starts out as cavalier and self-involved and ends up so much nicer. As Charlie Kringas, Tyler Pirrung pours out some terrific moments. He is quick, witty and adroit in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” a musical number in which his character skewers the money-grubbing man Frank has become.
Leyla Corbett is splendid as Mary — “Sally” to Pirrung’s “Buddy” (think “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). Strong voiced, emotionally powerful, Corbett has some very sassy, world-weary Elaine Stritch-y moments throughout this show. We can only imagine where this still-young talent will go.
Christine Brandt lusciously fleshes out celebrated Broadway actress Gussie Carnegie, a self-involved vamp who gets her talons into the man she wants and doesn’t think twice about splashing iodine into the eyes of an interloping ingénue.
One of the stand-out numbers is “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a wonderfully fun and delightfully staged song about the Kennedy White House years. It features Morgan, Pirrung and the bright voiced Lindsay Nantz who portrays Beth, Frank’s first wife.
But there are interesting ironies with this show’s theme about selling out your art to make money. First, there’s the chance you have never heard, let alone seen, a production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” It is seldom produced. Indeed, its Broadway debut had only 16 performances. And that was after 52 preview performances – a time where tweaks generally take place to improve the commercial appeal of a Broadway show.
Then, there is Charley’s and Mary’s full-blown finger-pointing of Frank’s willingness to bastardize his talent to make Hollywood money…Sondheim recently announced that he did exactly that, and quite deliberately, when he agreed to soft peddle the ending to Disney’s movie version of Sondheim’s huge hit musical, “Into the Woods.” In a June 23 online article, BroadwayWorld.com quoted him as saying “There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise anymore, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”
Fortunately, the reality with the Henegar’s production is that it entertains throughout. You will be thrilled by the talented cast and probably come away changed, for the better.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Merrily We Roll Along” runs through Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are to plus handling. Call 321-723-0698 or visit www.henegar.org. MORE…I will moderate a “Talk Back” with the director, music director and select cast members after the 8 p.m. Friday performance. Do stick around for that.