Plum Roll

With a perfect cast and an inventive production, Signature merrily offers up a knockout for its season opener

by Tom Avila
Published on September 13, 2007, 12:00am | Comments

First of all, the answer is yes. This is the one that goes backwards.

Which means that Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along is not a show with a sad beginning and a hopeful, happy ending but, in fact, a show with a sad beginning whose hopeful, happy ending winds up being completely and utterly depressing. Set to music.

If it were constructed like a traditional musical, the story Merrily tells is standard. A trio of talented friends -- composer Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore), his collaborator Charley Kringas (Erik Liberman) and writer Mary Flynn (Tracy Lynn Olivera) -- set out to conquer the world and are eventually separated by the fame they thought they wanted. Friendships are betrayed. A marriage falls apart. Hearts are broken. To music.


But this is the Sondheim musical that goes backwards. So instead of watching everything fall apart, we watch it come back together.

It's unsurprising that Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer, who served as artistic director for the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Festival and has directed 16 Sondheim shows prior, has done a wonderful job with Merrily. It's equally unsurprising that Helen Hayes winner Gartshore is outstanding as Franklin Shepard. In fact, it's difficult to walk into the Signature's MAX Theatre and not take an outstanding performance somewhat for granted. It should almost be expected. To quote the philosophers, ''Here we are now, entertain us.''

This may be why Schaeffer has conspired with scenic designer James Kronzer to shake the audience's expectations from the minute they enter. Gone is the traditional stage and in its place are a raised, glossy circular platform, gleaming white spiral staircase and a glossy black piano. This is not a night at the theater. This is a nightclub. Well, sort of.

Less energetic minds may have left it at that. Placing Sondheim in a nightclub makes perfect sense, as his is the songbook most cabaret performers have squirreled away somewhere.

But then the party starts and choreographer Karma Camp lets us know that we're not looking at any ordinary nightclub set. It's a television set and we're the studio audience of one of those primetime variety shows of the 1960s and '70s. Camp has brilliantly unpacked the vocabulary of the eras and works the set's limited quarters like the biggest Broadway stage. One hopes that others are taking notes on what she's accomplished.

Teamed with Helen Hayes-winner Robert Perdziola's costumes, the illusion is perfectly set. Not only is the cast going back in time, so are we.

And Schaeffer is not simply going to entertain us -- he's going to knock us out.

Merrily We Roll Along
starstarstarstarstar
To Oct. 14
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington
$40-$69
703-820-9771
www.signature-theatre.org

Gartshore, Olivera and Liberman are pitch perfect as the show's lead trio. Gartshore brings his usual talent and charisma to the stage while Olivera and Liberman demonstrate a comic timing matched only by Olivera's stunning voice. They are more than ably supported by Tory Ross as the desperate Broadway starlet Gussie Carnegie, Christopher Bloch as her husband Joe Josephson, and Bayla Whitten's Beth. Special appreciation must go to Whitten for her moving performance of ''Not a Day Goes By,'' arguably the greatest break-up song ever written.

If there is a down note with this show, it is the sound. In a visually intriguing move, the orchestra is not placed in a pit or hidden behind a curtain, but raised up onto a balcony just beyond the top of the spiral staircase. Because of this, the musicians, particularly the brass, occasionally overwhelm the voices on the stage. It's a difficult balance to maintain, but careful attention must be paid to keep the trombone from stepping on a laugh line.

Merrily We Roll along is a perfect opening for Signature Theatre's 18th season. A strong cast and design team manage to raise an already high bar and remind the audience that there is always another trick to pull out of the hat. And they do it to music.