By Michael Buzzelli
When we meet Franklin Shepard (Danny Mayhak), Mary Flynn (Catherine Kolos) and Charles Kringas (Nathaniel Yost), their famous – perhaps infamous – friendship is dissolving in Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” With luck and the magic of theater, we get to rewind the spool and see how and where things go wrong and why they’re not as merry as they once were.
Important note about the Sondheim musical: “Merrily” doesn’t roll forward, but in reverse, rolling back like prices at Walmart.
The show began as a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934, but it’s been retold and reworked a few times. This is a newest version. To be frankly frank, some of the plot is rough around the edges. The Benjamin Button meets Merlin storytelling style doesn’t help the show but hinders it. Clearly, there’s a reason the show has been reworked so many times. Something isn’t working, BUT (big capital but here) stick around. It gets better.
If you aren’t enjoying the first act, do yourself a favor and hang on until the second act. The show doesn’t just roll along – it picks up speed. As the characters get younger, their optimism and joy of life gets bigger. The ending (no spoilers) is an absolute joy.
Pop the champagne, because “Merrily We Roll Along” is bursting with local talent. The cast is mesmerizing. They all sparkle and shine each in their own unique ways.
Mayhak was tremendous. At the beginning of the show (toward the end of the friendship), Frank Shepard isn’t a likable guy, but Mayhak infuses the character with his own charismatic charm.
Side note: When Mayhak took his final bow, the opening night theatergoers screamed as if the Beetles walked out onto the Ed Sullivan Show stage. If the opening night audience can be trusted, Mayhak received rock star status with this role. Ironically, it’s the sort of reaction, the fictious play-within-the-play might have gotten when the characters sing “It’s a Hit” at the beginning of the second act.
Kolos – long absent from the stage – needs to be trod the boards more often. Her voice is a power tool, fixing lyrics that don’t always work.
Yost doesn’t get as much stage time as Mayhak and Kolos, but he breathes life into every moment. He also has a powerful vocal instrument.
Michaela Isenberg is another notable standout performing the role of Gussie, Frank’s second ex. She gets some of the best lines in the show and she delivers them flawlessly. You wouldn’t want to be friends with Gussie, but you wouldn’t want to be her enemy either.
We meet Frank’s first ex, Beth (Marnie Quick) later in the show, but you will wish she was rolling along with us earlier. Quick gets a solo late in the first act, “Not a Day Goes By,” and it’s incredible.
“Merrily We Roll Along” has a large ensemble, but this ensemble has several stars in its own right.
Missy Moreno, playing a partygoer, gets the longest sustained laugh ever heard in the New Hazlett. Personally, I may never hear the word “Gestalt” without laughing ever again.
There’s a lot of swift movement courtesy of Choreographer Alex Manalo. Manalo wrangles the aforementioned large ensemble with grace and style to peppy music provided by Music Director Doug Levine.
Kim Brown’s costumes are a delight. The show takes place in the 60s and 70s (technically, the 70s and the 60s), and Brown adorns the cast with bright, colorful clothing that looks like it came straight from a party scene in “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Google it.
Director Daina Griffith takes big swings and knocks all of them out of the park. This production is based completely on her vision of the show. It’s a glorious interpretation of the retold classic.
We never get the sort of closure or dénouement that we need or expect from similar shows. If you can look past that, you’re in for a helluva good time.
Bring a friend.
“Merrily We Roll Along” runs from August 18 until August 27 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For tickets and more information, click here.