“Most Friends Fade”: The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.

So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies.

And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).

The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.

Schultz [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.

I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.

The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.

Johnson, Gagnon [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. Dyan Bailey’s video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.

The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by the Kardashian family.


Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number.  Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.

Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George,After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following, and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.

Roy and Lauren Crocker at The Ringwald


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Debauchery ‘R’ Us: The Wolf of Wall Street

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Early in the bacchanalia that is Martin Scorsese’s latest The Wolf of Wall Street, titular “wolf” Jordan Belfort – portrayed with a Jack Nicholson-esque level of pop-eyed cuckoo by exceptional Leonardo DiCaprio – describes his unique work philosophy thusly: “Give ’em to me young, hungry, and stupid.”

And that about sums up the movie.

There’s been a lot of haughty debate-team hyperbole about how the film is a morality tale for our ages or how it is a disgustingly self-indulgent, overly long mess.

Yup. It’s both.

But the pundits are missing a crucial point. This film is neither celebration nor indictment of the participants in a mid-90s scheme to debunk both rich and poor via the proliferation of something called “penny stocks.” Rather, the film is a sly comic valentine to society’s scruffy, scrappy sweathogs who subsist on the scraps handed down by a byzantine capitalist superstructure … and who one day figure out how to out-crook the crooks running the show.

I enjoyed myself greatly, but I found myself looking at my watch … a lot. It wasn’t that the movie is boring. Not. At. All. But it’s just so much of the same, and the narrative heft doesn’t really necessitate a three hour running time. (For a similar and more expeditiously told version of a comparable tale, check out Kevin Spacey’s criminally underrated Casino Jack about skeezy scammer Jack Abramoff.)

The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the true-life memoir of Belfort, is a hoot, but it’s a hard-to-recommend one. Given the prodigious nudity, drug-use, profanity, and all-out reprehensible behavior on display, I feel quite saucy exclaiming with arms outstretched, “Go see this slice of AMERICANA!” But you kinda should.

We know this crap goes on every day of every month of every year, yet we barely connect with the implications of such sordid behavior other than a few minutes reading about such an incident in a Yahoo! headline or catching a glimpse of Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow expressing their liberal ironic disgust.

Scorsese is a manic delight as a director, and I always enjoy his overstuffed, hyperkinetic fantasias. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas to Gangs of New York to The Departed, he humanizes the gum on our collective societal shoes – those people who live in the economic undercurrent, the feisty few who flip a middle finger to ethics and morals and all things holy in their primal urge to survive … and thrive.

DiCaprio is spectacular in the title role – completely reprehensible and absolutely lovable all at once. Scorsese surrounds his muse with a marvelous supporting cast: a wonderful Jonah Hill whose epic overbite and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses do nine-tenths of his acting work as DiCaprio’s partner in materialism/drug use/bamboozling; a perfectly subdued but completely compelling Rob Reiner as DiCaprio’s complicit/fretting papa; Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin as a charmingly oily Swiss banker; and exasperated, clever, relentless everyman Kyle Chandler as the g-man who finally brings Belfort to earth again.

Surprisingly, my favorite of this sparkling cast was Matthew McConaughey (really, I just don’t like the dude). He positively runs off with the film in a totally hysterical scene early on where he describes the Faustian bargain the young DiCaprio is about to strike, entering the raucous world of stock brokering on Wall Street. McConaughey sets the loopy tone that the following three hours will follow with a gonzo Bobby McFerrin-style vocal exercise shared over a two-martini lunch with his young charge. Mad Men meets Daffy Duck. I have no other way to describe this. It has to be seen.

This is a naughty movie for those naughty enough to wink at a naughty world that is pathetically preoccupied with cash and sex and stuff. So, go be naughty.

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010’s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…