|Marnie Quick as Beth, Dan Mayhak as Frank, Catherine Kolos as Mary, NathanielYost as Charley and David leong as Joe Credit: Deana Muro|
Judging by the full and rich sound of the first notes music director, Douglas Levine gets from his eight-piece orchestra, you have to assume Front Porch Theatricals is giving its audience a exemplary production of Merrily We Roll Along. And you’d be right.
Off to a good start musically, the show goes on to feature some fine vocal and acting skills from its cast of, would you believe, 19.
Talk about a challenge. In her directorial debut no less, actor and educator, Daina Michelle Griffith, corrals this expansive cast with the skill a Catholic nun herding a group of grade schoolers to daily mass. Only this is no throng of pre-teenagers but a horde of professionals with talent galore up to the task of bringing Broadway‘s legendary Stephen Sondheim‘s work to life.
The musical, based on a play by Kaufman and Hart, opens during a party hosted by Frank (Dan Mayhak), a composer turned Hollywood wunderkind, who’s celebrating the opening of his new film. Among the attendees are long-standing friends with a 20-year bond, plus Frank’s second wife, who’s aware of his newest romantic interest. Instead of a celebration, Frank gets a rebuke as his major relationships are frayed, if not unraveled.
Using the same chronological template as Kaufman and Hart, the musical (book by George Furth) then unwinds in reverse sequential order, a somewhat challenging arrangement to the audience, so it pays to pay attention.
As we travel back in time with the three friends, we learn that Charley (Nathaniel Yost) is a talented writer who attaches words to Frank’s songs, and Mary (Catherine Kolos), is a writer of fiction with a successful book to her name who’s fast on her way down Booze Alley to alcohol addiction. Note: Kolos’ drunken antics at Frank’s party are something to remember.
As the narrative retrogrades into their past we see how their present is built and influenced by their life experiences. How Frank gives in to the temptations of Hollywood riches and abandons his early vision of creating meaningful art. Playing Gilbert to Frank’s Sullivan, Charley feels betrayed and abandoned by his theatrical partner and bears his grudges with outspoken candor. You’ll see this especially in the patter-like song “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” he delivers in the middle of Act One.
Mayhak maintains a boyish charm throughout the musical, an audience-winning trait that extends from the beginning of the musical, which, if you’ve been paying attention, is really the ending of the story line. Even when he’s spoiled by success and egomania, he manages to get under your skin with sheer likeability.
As strong as Mayhak is in his character, I was also impressed by the work of Yost, who may not have the glam role but infuses his work with the same detail you find in Baroque architecture and painting, if you‘ll excuse my hyperbole. The lad also has a good deal of vocal talent,
The glue trying to cement the triad of friends together and franticly attempts to keep things from falling apart is Mary. Kolos shows her as a die-hard advocate for fraternal camaraderie, steadfast in her zeal to maintain a delicate balance between the two warring men but all the while, dealing with her own set of personal demons.
From out of the blue comes, Beth (Marnie Quick), Franks’s first wife, who stole my heart with her end-of-the -first act “Not a Day Goes By,” a tear-jerker ballad as sweet and melancholy as a warm and sunny October afternoon.
|Michaela Isenberg as Gussie and Dan Mayhak as Frank|
For a bit of sass, Michaela Isenberg plays the worldly, savvy and manipulative Gussie, a woman who knows how to use her alluring physicality to her advantage.
The rest of the cast is just a solid as the main players, adding interest and an array of colorful inventiveness to their roles.
For a musical that begins with a sour disposition, Merrily ends on an aspirational note, showing the three friends as star struck youngsters beginning life’s journey and starting down the road that the audience already knows just how winding and tumultuous things will get along the way.
If you remember the song "Merrily We Roll Along" as a child, you'll be in for an interesting adult change of pace when you see the version crafted by Sondheim and Furth.
Merrily We Roll Along, a Front Porch Theatricals production, is at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side, through August 27. For tickets, go to newhazletttheater,org.