“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.

“They worship everything and value nothing.” La La Land

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is La La Land the second (or even third or fourth) coming of the great movie musical? Not exactly. To call it a “musical” seems a bit overblown, as the flick’s songs (by newcomer Justin Hurwitz) come and go more like incomplete yet tuneful doodles as opposed to full-fledged numbers. The choreography is about two notches above a rhythmic walk down the street, and the singing … well … the singing makes Rex Harrison’s trademarked talk/sing (see My Fair Lady, Dr. Dolittle) sound like Adele at Carnegie Hall. Yet, I think that half-assed musicality is all by design on the part of director Damien Chazelle, who was responsible for Whiplash, one of my favorite films of the last ten years.

So, please, stop billing La La Land as a lush, glowing tribute to the glory years of the American movie musical. The film happily, gleefully wraps itself in all the tropes of the genre, much like The Artist (the two films are spiritual and stylistic cousins) used silent film to tell a similar narrative of ambitious if downtrodden performers navigating the despair and loneliness of love and ladder-climbing in the City of Dreams (Los Angeles). However, it ain’t a musical – at least for those of us expecting a behind-the-curtain songfest like Singin’ in the Rain or Funny Face. Much like Whiplash, it is a film with music, melodies seeping through every corner of its DNA. And that’s ok.

The genre that the film really exemplifies (a genre that isn’t really a genre except anywhere in my own head) is the movie-that-exists-solely-for-the-sake-of-a-final-act-punchline-that-brings-the-rest-of-the-film-into-stark-relief-and-makes-you-go-“oh-THAT’s-what-I’ve-been-watching-for-the-past-two-hours.” Think The Sixth Sense (or anything else by gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan).  I’m pretty certain this will be the only review that compares La La Land to a movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost (20-year-old spoiler alert!).

La La Land is surprisingly and refreshingly dark, but you don’t realize that until hours after viewing. It unspools in a light, frothy homage to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also beats with a candy-colored heart of darkness). Two (literally) star-crossed lovers – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – find mutual affection in their shared failure, he a struggling jazz pianist of the purest and most pretentious variety and she a failing actress bouncing unsuccessfully from one insultingly mind-numbing TV-pilot audition to another. Naturally, they fall for each other. It is a musical after all; oh wait, I just said it wasn’t. Much.

As their lives spiral up and down and back again (“me here at last on the ground … you in mid-air”), the movie details the toxic effects that unshared, ill-timed success and failure can have on a relationship of creative types torn between each other and egomania. The songs, as they are (“City of Stars” being the most memorable … or at least the most hummable), are used effectively to illustrate the pointed emotional moments of Gosling and Stone’s shared lives. Imagine A Star is Born (Judy and James, not Barbra and Kris – please) structured as the dreamlike nervous breakdown of Dancer in the Dark (directed by renowned sadist Lars von Trier and scored by renowned wood nymph Bjork).

This is the point in the review where you look at the screen and say, “Dammit, Roy, stop being an obtuse show-off! Did you like this movie or not?!”

I did. Very much. And here’s why. As a musical, it’s unremarkable (I’ve driven that point into submission). As a treatise on the fleeting nature of time and love and ambition, on the hollow reward of financial success and critical acclaim, on the haunting nature of missed opportunities and second-guessing one’s life choices, La La Land is a powder keg. The first hour? I thought to myself, “This is kind of insipid. Gosling and Stone are charming as always, but they embarrass me a little bit. Why are they so awkward and unsure. Why can’t they sing? Why are they floating on the ceiling of a planetarium? Am I supposed to be moved by this? Is Rebel Without a Cause as referenced in this flick intended to be a metaphor for something?” Well, the characters are gawky as hell because, at that point in their lives and careers, they would be.

In fact, Gosling edges Stone out a bit in the film’s first half, channeling the fourth-wall-breaking sparkle he demonstrated in The Big Short, with a winning “little boy lost” cynicism. Passing a group of actors rehearsing on the Warner Brothers’ back lot where Stone works as a barista in a forgotten coffee shop, he ruefully observes of the desperate thespians, “They worship everything and value nothing.”

But, then, life hits this duo right in the solar plexus (plexi?), and La La Land gets really interesting. Their shabby chic world together experiences a few wins but even more losses. They drift. They fight. They become more sure of themselves and reluctantly admit that life must lead them away from each other. And they sing (sort of).

In defense of Stone, her big solo (in the spot of what we used to call an “11 o’clock” number like “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Rose’s Turn” that spins all the key themes into one fist-raising, anthemic exclamation point) is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” a full-throated yawlp that shows us, yes, she can sing, and, boy, can she act.

Then, THEN, in the film’s final moments, Chazelle hits you with a Gene Kelly-esque montage/remix/rewind/dream-dance ballet (I’ve always hated those, until this one) that puts the preceding narrative in perspective and leaves you gutted, wondering about your own life choices, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what might have been. Now, that‘s a musical. No, it isn’t. It’s something new entirely. That’s why I loved this movie.


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.