Review: Merrily a Success, Despite Rough Edges

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

An energetic cast of actors and actresses, a student orchestra, and a production team performed the show Merrily We Roll Along this weekend. They gave a notable rendition, despite some performance flaws.

This year’s fall mainstage musical is not a simple one. The message does not uplift, the story does not neatly arc and resolve, and the plot is neither linear nor easy. But that makes this accomplishment all the more noteworthy and the animated performances all the more impressive.

In under two months, the team behind Merrily We Roll Along managed to tackle a show known as a ‘problem show’—a complex work that moves backwards in time from 1976 to 1957, constructed around a friendship that falls apart and youthful dreams that the audience knows from the start will not be realized.

The show opens with an ensemble of eleven singing the opening song “Merrily We Roll Along,” communicating the mood of the scenes to come, as they would continue to do in transitions throughout the show.  At moments it seemed as though some dance steps were missing, or certain songs were better rehearsed than others, but given the length and breadth of the show, this is a small quibble.

Through song, the audience is asked, “how did you get to be here?” and “what was the moment?” These are questions we all grapple with, and ones that this show answers for its main characters though scenes of key defining moments. The three friends traced in songs, scenes, and dialogues are composer-turned-Hollywood-movie-producer Franklin Shepard (Daniel Cho ’15), playwright Charley Kringas (Paolo Debuque ’15) and novelist Mary Flynn (Allison Hrabar ’16).

The show begins with Frank as a successful movie producer. He is estranged from Charley who is a playwright in New York, has destroyed his marriage with Broadway actress Gussie Carnegie (Anna Ramos ’13) and has disappointed old friend Mary Flynn with his superficiality. Finally, Frank himself admits that this wasn’t what he wanted.

With a slew of characters, plot details, and intricate dynamics already at play, the show continues to the scene of Frank and Charley’s estrangement. Attempting to keep them together, as she would again and again, Hrabar brought poise, humor, and energy to the complex role of Mary Flynn—not to mention beautiful, expressive vocals. Hrabar was fully present whenever on stage, injecting life and breath into her character. Gussie Carnegie is introduced as the devil on Frank’s shoulder—a social climbing, success-hounding actress who oozes sex appeal, ambition, and an awareness of her own power. That a character could be so odious in every movement and line uttered is a testament to the work of Ramos.

This scene epitomizes the sharp charm of the show; on live TV, Charley mimics the writing process with Frank in the song “Franklin Shephard Inc.” He intersperses riffs on the piano (actually played by pianists Andrew Karas ’15 and Nancy Kim ’14) with pretending to be Frank when the phone rings, dancing about the stage and delivering hilarious lyrics like, “He flies out to California, I discuss him with my shrink.”

Debuque flawlessly nailed this song’s playful, biting, wit and fast-paced choreography, not to mention displayed his impressive vocals for the first time. Later on in the song “Good Thing Going,” the sweetness in his voice was shiver-inducing.

As the show moved backwards through time, plot details were flung about in dialogue—a confusing device that critics of this musical have long denounced. Volume and delivery did not help with this confusion. The details introduce us to Gussie’s husband, Joe Josephson played by Chris Magnano ’14 whose performance gave a shifty character sweetness and complexity.

As the lead, Cho had a lot of responsibility riding on his shoulders and was consistently strong as Frank throughout the show, in vocals, acting, and emotional impact. He was particularly convincing as he communicated his character’s inner conflict when deciding to follow his old friends or head in a different direction with Gussie.

As Beth, Frank’s first wife, Kimaya Diggs ’15 gave a stunning performance of “Not a Day Goes By,” a gorgeous rendition of a heartbreaking and classic song. Working through the long show, energy waned at times and the unwieldy plot progression could begin to overwhelm, but standout scenes and strong vocal performances—like “Not a Day goes By”— reined the production back in.

In the second act of the show, the scenes shorten in length, and the show moves towards an innocent hopeful excitement that is fresh and believable, despite having already been undone. The song “Our Time” concludes the show, sung by three young people who see everything in front of them as shiny, possibility-filled opportunity. Idealistic and talented friends make promises to each other that they fully intend to keep.

Of course, we know that they will be disappointed—that their hopes will flicker and be extinguished by the harsh realities of adulthood. I was not sure whether to walk away pessimistic, or filled with a dedication to remaining true to my youthful hopes; but in the end this is a show that urges to maintain integrity above all and to hold on to the people that allow you to do so: the people who matter.

As demonstrated by video footage of the cast’s rehearsals that played during the final scene, the process counts for a lot. Committing fully to an imperfect show is a learning experience and an endeavor enhanced by its unpredictability.

In her Director’s Note, Johghee C. Quispe ’14 wrote that “putting on this show is risky.” She pointed out that “the show itself is inherently and irreversibly flawed. Perhaps it simply is not fit for young actors and such feats should never have never attempted.

Speaking for everyone who saw this musical on Saturday or Sunday, we are lucky that a group of Swarthmore students did attempt and commit to this show, with all its kinks and bumps.

Andrew Karas ’15, mentioned in the above article, is also News Editor at The Daily Gazette.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cho.

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