Monday, September 26, 2022

"Merrily We Roll Along" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Stephen Sondheim was 91 when he died last November, but it still felt too soon, like there was still more he could do and write and say. But the good news is he left us an incredible body of work, songs and musicals and stories that will never die, as long as there are companies like Theater Latte Da to perform them (which many seem more eager to do in the wake of his recent passing, the Guthrie will produce Into the Woods next summer). Latte Da teased us with a couple of Sondheim cabarets at Crooners earlier this year, and is now opening their 25th season with the lesser produced Merrily We Roll Along. The 1981 Broadway flop was reworked a few times, and has gained popularity over the years*. I knew nothing about it before seeing the show, but I knew that I was in good hands with Theater Latte Da, my favorite interpreters of Sondheim's work. Seeing this production it's hard to imagine why it wasn't an instant hit, but I guess the show took a while to find itself, similar to its characters. The unique backwards storytelling is interesting and challenging and fun, as the pieces fall into place in this story of three friends trying to make it in show business, while still holding on to what matters. As per usual with Theater Latte Da, it's an all-around impeccable production that made me fall in love with this piece and want to see and listen to it over and over again.

The show begins with a curtain call, to which the audience obliged, and which the cast earned over the next two hours or so. It's 1976, and Frank has made it big as a producer and songwriter in Hollywood, with a string of successful movies starring his new wife. But the marriage is falling apart, he's having an affair with a young starlet, and is estranged from his two former best friends. Writer Mary is drunk, depressed, and has become a (gasp) theater critic. Frank's playwright/lyricist partner Charley isn't even at the party and hasn't spoken to Frank in years, but has won the Pulitzer Prize for his new play. From there, each scene jumps back in time a few years, through the success and failures, marriages and babies, until we end up at the beginning - 1957. Frank has just moved in with Charley and they meet Mary on the rooftop watching Sputnik sail across the stars. Their bright futures are ahead of them, with the optimism of youth telling them they can do anything they want. It's a very clever concept to start out at an unhappy ending, and then work backwards to see how they got there.

Reese Britts, Becca Hart, and Dylan Frederick
(photo by Dan Norman)
Theater Latte Da's co-founder and Artistic Director Peter Rothstein directs the piece with his usual clarity and thoughtfulness, bringing out all of the emotion in the piece. His direction, combined with the design elements, and performances from the stellar cast, make the possibly confusing concept easy to follow. Locations and dates are projected on the back wall of the theater, the stage completely open to the historic character-laden walls of the Ritz (fitting since much of the story takes place in and around theaters). The actors start the show weary and jaded, and progress to a more youthful energy as the show goes on. If Jelly's Last Jam was Reese Britts' breakout performance, this is a close second. He portrays all of the complexities of Frank, making him at times sympathetic, at other times infuriating, sometimes both at the same time. #TCTheater newcomer Dylan Frederick plays Charley, and endears himself to the audience early in the show with a wildly fantastic performance of the breakdown/breakup song "Franklin Shepard, Inc." Completing the trifecta is Becca Hart, who's both hilarious and heart-breaking as the broken down Mary, later infusing the character with layers of hope, spunk, and unrequited love. The three of them are so believable as friends, which makes the end of their friendship more and more tragic as the show goes on.

the cast of Merrily We Roll Along (photo by Dan Norman)
The large and talented supporting cast includes Britta Ollmann as Frank's first wife Beth and Vie Boheme as his second wife Gussie, both of them bringing depth and vulnerability to their characters, each with a dynamite solo - "Not a Day Goes By" and "Act Two Opening," respectively. The hard-working ensemble also includes the incredible talents of Ronnie Allen, Camryn Buelow, Charlie Clark, Kim Kivens, Ryan London Levin, Tod Petersen, and the adorable young Josiah Leeman as Frank Jr. (alternating with Mathias Brinda).

The performance space is defined by long rows of dressing room tables on three sides, complete with bright lights that flicker in time with the music, with just a piano, bar, and a few other simple set pieces used in different ways (scenic design by Peter Rothstein, lighting design by Grant E. Merges). When not in scenes, actors often sit at those tables, or on the sides of the stage, sometimes changing clothes or exchanging props there. A clothes rack at the back of the theater conceals the five-piece orchestra led by Music Director Jason Hansen on piano/keys. The score is classic Sondheim, meaning not easy, and it sounds gorgeous. Fast, clever, tricky lyrics, unexpected melodies, lovely harmonies, with recurring musical themes that stitch the scenes together and lead us back through the years. Both the costumes (by Rich Hamson) and the choreography (by Renee Guittar) feel era specific, from the swingin' '70s to the beatnik '60s and into the '50s, and really help with knowing where we are in time.

It's a joy to newly discover a work of one of the 20th Century's best musical theater creators, especially in the hands of this incredibly talented cast and creative team. Merrily We Roll Along explores the themes of friendship, art, and time itself. I'm so glad the original creators saved this one-time flop from obscurity, and that Theater Latte Da has brought us this wonderful production of it. See it at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through October 30 (they do tend to sell out so get your tickets early, and price differs by day, with Saturday matinees being the least expensive).

*For more on the history of this show, as well as Sondheim's career, see #TCTheater artist and musical theater aficionado Max Wojtanowicz's "Pin Spot Series" edutainment show on Monday October 3.