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Merrily We Roll Along -08/19/1999

Creative team: Director Russell Mangialardi; Scenic Designer Kenneth P. Johnson; Choreographer Dawn Harris; Lighting Designer Greg Dvorak

Play: Merrily We Roll Along, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth
Venue: IWU Westbrook Auditorium
Dates: 8 p.m., August 20-21 and 3 p.m. August 22
Cost: General, $12; students and seniors, $8


Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” has always been a bit of an acquired taste.

Although it came after the composer’s “Sweeney Todd” and before “Sunday in the Park With George” -- both Broadway hits -- “Merrily” managed only 16 performances when it opened on Broadway in 1981.

It did better when it was restaged and revived off-Broadway in 1995, and has always been a favorite for Sondheim fans, but still has trouble really making an impact on audiences in general. That’s probably why Prairie Fire’s current production at IWU’s Westbrook Auditorium is listed as a Bloomington-Normal premiere, all these years after the show began.

What’s the problem? Certainly not the music. Three songs alone -- the gorgeous, soaring “Not a Day Goes By,” bouncy “Old Friends” and “Good Thing Going,” a certifiable single (recorded by Frank Sinatra) -- make the score plenty memorable.

But then there’s the plot... “Merrily We Roll Along” is based on a 1934 Kaufman and Hart play that looks at an unhappy man in the present and then rewinds through the years to find out how he got there. The Sondheim and Furth version is all about youthful idealism turning into middle-aged regret, about three friends who planned to make it together but somehow strayed apart.

This backwards path to the past tends to confuse audiences, and makes casting tough, too. Do you cast performers the right age for the beginning, when everyone is mature and jaded, or for the end, when they’re all young and starry-eyed?

Given its challenges, “Merrily” is an ambitious choice for Prairie Fire Theatre. Under the direction of Russell Mangialardi, Prairie Fire takes a middle ground on casting, mixing ages and types. They’ve trimmed the total cast, utilized the 1995 version’s script improvements, and ended up with an interesting, if not completely successful show.

On the plus side, Gregory A. Tittle, as Frank, the charming composer who sells out to Hollywood as he ages, and Kirsten Gronfield, as Beth, the love of his young life, both sing beautifully, combining on a lovely “Not a Day Goes By.”

Tittle shines when he sings “Growing Up,” performed alone at a piano, and the two of them team very well with Dave Schick, an amiable performer himself, on the funny and energetic “Bobby & Jackie & Jack,” a number that’s meant to sound just like one of those Tom Lehrer songs from the 60’s (and does). Gronfield gets a chance to do a little opera, a little ballet, and she’s quite charming.

But it is Schick who offers the evening’s most fully-formed performance, and his simply staged version of “Good Thing Going” is a highlight.

Kenneth P. Johnson’s set design is also a plus. The classy skyline backdrop offers the right atmosphere as “Merrily” rolls along.

Still, these fine performances and the nifty set are undercut by the production’s biggest problem -- rather meandering staging that never quite comes together. That results in group numbers that seem to have trouble starting cleanly and staying together, muddy segues, and Schick’s otherwise terrific “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” being cast into shadow by misplaced blocking and lighting. Also a problem on opening night were numerous entrance and exit miscues as the lights came up and down.

The other major opening night minus was an overloud orchestra (especially the drums) that drowned out the lyrics. And when you’re talking about Sondheim, the last thing you want to do is drown out the lyrics.

For many, the music alone makes “Merrily We Roll Along” worth the price of admission. But its structure and score make this a tough show for even the slickest companies. Prairie Fire simply isn’t up to that challenge yet.

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