If Sondheim is your jam, you’re likely to like Merrily We Roll Along at Greenbelt Arts Center. It’s visually splendid, full of complicated musical numbers, excellent choreography, amazing attention to detail, and strong performances by both cast and orchestra.
Director Roy Hammond and his talented production team present a sumptuous vision of 20 years of friendship between three artists of differing talents and temperaments, driven by the complex musical numbers of Stephen Sondheim.
Written by Sondheim in 1981, the musical is based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The musical preserves the structure of Kaufman and Hart’s straight play, which employs a reverse timeline in which the show begins at the end and works backward.
The show comes in at a whopping three-hour length (including one 15-minute intermission), so attending it is a Commitment with a capital C. No food or drinks are allowed inside the theater, and when I attended the Sunday matinee, no snacks or beverages were sold at Intermission. (I had snacks in my vehicle, fortunately. I’d missed lunch.)
Personal disclaimer: Sondheim isn’t my favorite. I’ve seen Company, I’ve seen Into the Woods, I’ve seen Sondheim on Sondheim, I’ve seen A Little Night Music, I’ve seen Side by Side by Sondheim. The only one of Sondheim’s pieces I’d be interested in seeing again is Sweeney Todd. Genius he may be, I find his music, with rare exceptions, shrill, discordant, with confusing overlaps of melody and lyrics, and often no real conclusion to a song, just an end — the exact qualities in his music that others love.
But back to the production at hand. Director Hammond has assembled a cast of assorted ages, ethnicities, and body types for the ensemble cast. His attention to detail — through characters holding cigarettes, for example — is praiseworthy, and I love the three-dimensionality of the blocking. Twelve ensemble members fill the scenes and the songs with depth and richness.
Actors Pamela Northrup, Todd Zachwieja, and Daniel Fleming play the three leads, a tight-knit trio of friends, named Mary Flynn, Franklin Shepard, and Charlie Kringas, who don’t seem to be as close as they think they are. The performers’ elegant vocals and nuanced performances keep the audience engaged in their stories even when it’s difficult to become invested in the characters — a common obstacle in Sondheim’s shows in my opinion. Liz Mulligan as Gussie Carnegie, Jim Adams as Joe Johnson, and Joani Calles as Beth Spencer are truly excellent supporting cast members.
I’m not sure where Director Hammond’s blocking ends and Choreographer Rikki “Howie” Lacewell’s choreography begins, but it’s smooth and natural, individual and specific. The conga line and the transition sequences are particularly fun to watch.
Music Director and Conductor Joe Biddle, like Hammond, has assembled a great group of orchestral musicians who do justice to Sondheim’s music. The vocalists are on-target, in duets, trios, larger groups, as well as solos, though occasionally individuals are hard to hear.
Flanking the orchestra, which occupies possibly as much as 30 percent of the available floor space, are two projection screens, used first to display a list of rules and expected audience behaviors, then as interstitial scene-setting to illustrate the passage of time with headlines, photographs, and artworks and finally as backdrops to the scenes. The projections and set are designed by the versatile Hammond. From some spots in the three-sided seating, however, they are difficult or impossible to see.
Costumer Megan Scott dresses each of the performers for the roles and periods they portray, and I’m never confused about who I’m seeing. Hair and Makeup Designer Malca Giblin creates excellent period looks for each character, as well as individualized “style,” lending a real variety to the look of the cast, particularly important considering the different periods invoked in the show. Stage Manager Sally Dodson hustles small set pieces in and out with the aid of actors as well as a designated run crew, and I am impressed by the smoothness of the transitions. Though the show is long, it’s certainly not because of lengthy scene changes.
The character interactions are painfully realistic, but the vocal interactions are lovely. A highlight of the show is the “Old Friends” number, which Northrup, Zachwieja, and Fleming perform with terrific energy reminding me a little of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. The harmonies between Northrup, Zachwieja, and Joani Calles as Beth in “Not a Day Goes By” are beautiful, and there’s a fun bit with chairs in “Opening Doors,” but probably my favorite number is Daniel Fleming’s featured piece, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” In that song, the interspersed dialogue, overlapping lyrics, and precisely timed sound effects from Sound Designer Brad J. Ranno make the number really work.
If you’re a fan of Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre (now enjoying a successful revival on Broadway), take time to enjoy this infrequently performed piece locally. Despite its length, I’m a fan of nonlinear storytelling, and I admire a production as well-executed as the Greenbelt Arts Center’s Merrily We Roll Along. It is lush, layered, and lovely, with an unusual structure and characters you may recognize. Whether you like these characters is another thing entirely, but that’s how Sondheim writes, and unapologetically, too.
Running Time: Three hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Merrily We Roll Along plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, January 18, 19, and 20, 2024, at 8 PM at the Greenbelt Arts Center in the historic Roosevelt Community Center, located at 123 Centerway, Greenbelt MD. Tickets ($14–$27) may be purchased online. For more information, phone the box office at 301-441-8770 or email [email protected].
The program for Merrily We Roll Along is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional.
Merrily We Roll Along
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Roy Hammond
Musical Direction by Joe Biddle
Choreography by Rikki “Howie” Lacewell
Produced by Malca Giblin