Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 September 2007 • 8pm
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth.
Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography: Karma Camp. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Will Gartshore (Franklin Shepard), Erik Liberman (Charley Kringas), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Mary Flynn), Tory Ross (Gussie Carnegie), Bayla Whitten (Beth), Christopher Bloch (Joe Josephson)…
There is something incredibly powerful about the way Merrily We Roll Along leads us to reflect upon roads not taken and choices that cannot be unmade. It is, unfortunately, not the most frequently performed of Sondheim shows, even though I was lucky to catch the very good production at the Derby Playhouse about four months ago.
The Signature production unfurls on a sleek and chic circular set that could be the interior of Mame’s mansion (huge staircase, grand piano, monumental door), bathed in surprisingly raw colours that seem to imply a voluntary distance from a realistic depiction. It is blessed by countless displays of directorial brilliance that contribute to make the show even more affecting, especially in Act 2. The clever choreography frequently winks at styles of the past, and there are pretty clear references to the “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity a couple of times.
There are uniformly good performances from the cast. Erik Liberman, in particular, handles the tricky part of Charlie competently, even though it is of course difficult to erase the memory of Raúl Esparza at the Sondheim Celebration a few years ago.
The 13-strong orchestra gives a joyous rendition of Sondheim’s jewel of a score. I got the impression that some scenes, especially some musical numbers, lacked pace and could still be made a little bit tighter, but it is relatively early in the run, and they are still presumably working on making the necessary adjustments.
Additionally, this production raises the interesting question of amplification — or lack thereof — in musical theatre. Although an intimate space like the Signature Theatre lends itself naturally to a non-amplified performance, there are two obstacles that are particularly obvious. Firstly, most younger singers haven’t been taught how to project their voices without amplification. There are tremendous differences in the way the various actors handle this, and some numbers like “Now You Know” lose some of their strength because of that. Secondly, Merrily was written at a time when amplification was a given. There are songs where a line sung by a solo voice segues into a choral passage, itself followed in short succession by another solo. In spite of Jon Kalbfleisch’s commendable efforts to avoid drowning the voices, there are instances when the overall impression is one of awkwardness rather than the fluidity one would expect from such a bunch of talented people.