DUAL CRITICS REVIEW: Merrily We Roll Along at ABET

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The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre opened the Florida premier of the musical “Merrily We Roll Along” on September 9, 2016. The production will be onstage through September 26.

The musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1981, is based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It hasn’t been staged frequently, probably because it is so challenging for the actors, musicians, and directors. But as far as we know, director Lee Hamby embraces challenging works, and this play was no exception. He was ably assisted by actor/director Rhodie Jackson.

The book is by George Furth, while the music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, an extraordinary composer whom all theatergoers reading this have doubtless come across many times. Musicals he has been involved with include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Passion,” and “Into the Woods.”

Sondheim and Furth updated the original play to a period covering 1957 to 1976. The play has nine scenes, and a timeline that goes backward, so we recommend that you read the program before the show starts to familiarize yourself with the chronology. The first scene is set in California; the scenes that follow are set in New York City and include NBC Studios, a courthouse, and other typical NYC venues.

Merrily We Roll Along - ABET

The story is that of Franklin (Daniel Austin), a talented composer, and the road he has traveled to Hollywood to become a successful film producer, after initially beginning as a songwriter for Broadway musicals. Charley (Josh Waller), a musician who values artistic achievement rather than commercial success, was a close friend and collaborator in the past, but at the time the play opens, they are no longer on speaking terms. Both have married and have a family. Franklin’s first wife Beth is played by Sara Beth Gerard-Summers, whom we last saw at Theatre Jacksonville in “9-5.” Frank Shepard Jr. is portrayed with polished presence by Ean Bricknell; he is a grade school student who is making his community theatre debut. Franklin’s second wife, the sensual and self-centered Gussie Carnegie (Jennifer Medure) moves on to a romantic involvement with promoter Joe Josephson (Dave Alan Thomas). Katie Swider McCloskey is Mary Flynn, who became friends with both Franklin and Charley after meeting them many years ago; she has some of the funniest lines in the show as an alcoholic writer.

Director Hamby has succeeded in melding the eleven other actors who play multiple roles into a flawless ensemble. They are constantly on and off ABET’s famously small stage, filling it with focused movement. The ensemble included Milan Alley, Gary Baker, Ean Bicknell, Elizabeth Bricknell, Evan Gould, Ilana Gould, Jonathan Leonard, Zachary Polendo, Katie Riley, Abigail Saenz, Ron Shreve, and Kelly Wolfe.

If you are familiar with Sondheim’s “Company,” which debuted in 1970, you may find many of the songs similar to the styling in that show. Robin Brazelton is the Vocal Director, and the lyrics are beautifully sung. Damon Martin is the Band Director and is also on piano; the additional band members are Greg Balut (Trumpet), Michael Taylor (Percussionist), Stephanie Batson (Flute), and Alex Hernandez (Clarinet).

The Choreography is by Niki Stokes with Ilana Gould as Dance Captain. Costumes are by Amy Tillotson, Lights and Sound by Bryan Frank. Stage Manager Brian Champion also made his Jacksonville theatre debut with a brief appearance as a minister.

This is a Broadway musical of rare intelligence and sensitivity, which engages the audience throughout. And while you probably won’t walk out humming any of the songs, “Old Friends,” ”Not a Day Goes By,” and “Our Time” are some of Sondheim’s best. For tickets and additional information, call 904-249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.