The Huntington Theatre recruited director Maria Friedman and two of her lead actors from the 2012 West End production of Merrily We Roll Along to stage the Stephen Sondheim musical in Boston, and for good reason.
The show, told backwards in time, about three friends who end with acrimony and selling out, but start with optimism and youthful energy, is simply terrific. I have to admit that after a decade of “Peak TV” I was looking for clearer threads in the plot — did THIS decision lead to THAT result? Where’s Chekhov’s gun? — but my wife assured me at intermission that it’s all about the emotional delivery of each scene. With that in mind, I was able to be more “present” and thoroughly enjoyed the performances, the scenic design, and the music.
The music! Sondheim has a reputation for angular melodies but in this score the horn parts have a lot of the odd chords and the vocalists have some very tuneful songs. In keeping with the chronological oddness of the show, the melodies and songs are reprised, in different moods, adding nuance to the presentation.
The main trio of actors, Damian Humbley as Charlie, Eden Espinosa as Mary, and the charismatic lead Mark Umbers as Frank are all given moments to shine. Two others, playing Frank’s wives also give good performances, Aimee Doherty as the horrible Gussie and Jennifer Ellis as the disappointed Beth, who gets the show stopping song — twice.
There’s a 70s cynicism underlying the entire plot, but in the end, we’re back to the beginning and the audience is let out with happy, major key melodies. A nice time at the theater.
EXTRA: A documentary about the first production of Merrily, a famous flop, is now streaming on Netflix, called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. I saw the doc before the show and now need to watch it again with show fresh in my mind.