Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer/lyricist, does not disappoint in his often-overlooked musical, Merrily We Roll Along. Neither do the students of Musical Theater Repertory, who opened the production last night at USC’s Massman Theater. Known as one of Sondheim’s most “famous flops” after closing on Broadway with just 40 performances under its belt, USC students did a commendable job of bringing the show back to life.
Sondheim is known for creating difficult and complex melodies, and the show itself could be described in the same manner. The story is told backward, with frequent musical interludes indicating a new year, usually two to three years prior. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Luckily, the production does a fine job reminding viewers of the current year with a projection on the clock-shaped proscenium.
The show tells the story of Frank, Charlie and Mary, a composer, playwright and author — respectively — who have fallen out of friendship following Frank’s massive success as a film producer.
As the show moves backwards, important moments in Frank’s life are highlighted, and the audience is slowly able to piece together the relationships and story.
The show premiered in 1981 and takes place from 1957-1976, but its themes of friendship, tenacity and perseverance are as timeless as the melodies. At times hopeful, at times funny and at times just depressing, the format offers small slices of life from the existence of one man. The most painful part of watching this show is realizing how earnestly Frank started out in his career, but all the while knowing how things have spiraled out of control just five, ten and twenty years down the road. The characters in the final scene and the characters in the first scene hardly seem like the same people.
The props, set and costumes, but luckily they do not overshadow the music, as musical director Anthony Lucca was still able to score a wonderful blend of instruments and voices.
Sondheim’s music demands accompaniment of the highest quality and the jazzy nine-piece orchestra does not go unnoticed. The harmonies are equally well done, especially in group numbers such as “Opening Doors” and “Now You Know.”
Sometimes Sondheim and the actors get a bit ahead of themselves, and it is easy to tell the performers are in over their heads. But moments like these are rare, and forgiven due to the excellence of most other songs.
Some particularly shining musical moments also include “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” performed by Charlie (Myles Nuzzi). Nuzzi miraculously stayed on top of the beat of this fast-paced song, and instantly had the audience moving along with him.
Solos by Jennifer Kranz (Beth), Claire Adams (Mary) and Bella Hicks (Gussie) were proof that student vocalists are nothing to shake a stick at. Commanding, powerful and skilled, all three ladies easily commanded the audience’s attention whenever they were on stage.
Though the singing is spectacular, more care should have been taken with the acting and choreography by student director Brandon Baer. Much of the choreography felt very stiff and purposeless, which could have been due to Sondheim’s writing. The opening number was particularly lackluster, which set the precedent for the rest of the show. By placing the actors in straight, unmoving lines, the audience is given no hint to the relationships to the bored-looking characters.
Similarly, instead of fighting the static repetition of the “Transition” numbers, Baer allowed the actors to simply stand still, which made the transitions feel like mere space fillers, as opposed to something genuinely necessary to the production.
Stronger acting was also something to be desired from much of the performers, especially — and equally unfortunately — the leading man Franklin Shepard, played by Taubert Nadalini. Nadalini was disappointingly stiff and emotionless and seemed like an awkward teenager for much of the production, which luckily came in handy as the production went on and the character became closer to his own age. Ironically, he seemed more confident and mature when he played the younger Frank, but this likely comes from the insecurity of playing a 40-year-old man.
Many other performances were either equally stiff, or obnoxiously over-played. This can likely be attributed to the maturity and difficulty of the production itself, and perhaps a few more live audiences will help the actors settle into the right performance. Regardless of the sometimes-shaky acting, the music and singing were still phenomenal, and made this Sondheim classic a recommended viewing.
The show runs through Sunday, and tickets are available through uscmtr.com.