Porchlight Music Theatre Presents MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG Review – The Staging Sondheim Deserves

Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
The story begins at the end, when Hollywood movie mogul Franklin Shephard (Jim DeSelm, center, surrounded by cast) begins to contemplate how he got here
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
We first enter Shephard's world at a party in his Hollywood home(l to r- Keely Vasquez as his scorned wife, Neala Barron as his heavy drinking friend, Jim DeSelm as Shephard and Alanna Lovely as his later in life love interest)
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Matt Crowle, center, as Charley Kringas
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Midlife crisis point, when Shephard's friends try to save him from himself-- (l to r Jim DeSelm, Neala Barron, Matt Crowle)
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
How ironic that as a Kennedy scion made the Democratic response to Trump on TV, this re-enactment of the Kennedys was on stage opening night (l to r - Matt Crowle, Aja Wiltshire, and Jim DeSelm)
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Kelly Vasquez as Gussie Carnegie sings Entr'Acte
Porchlight MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
When we go back in time, we see when sparks fly between Gussie (Keely Vasquez) and Shephard (Jim DeSelm)

Like a backwards running time machine, Merrily We Roll Along takes us on a journey back in time to show us how a famous Hollywood filmmaker (Franklin Shephard played by Jim DeSelm) got to where he ended up, and the relationships littering his road to success like road kill along the way. It’s a classic story about youthful dreams, ambition and drive, and how bonds can fray on the climb to the top. At the end of his life, Franklin finds himself upended by getting to the top of the mountain and then wondering if it was worth the effort.

With a live orchestra in the background (Conductor/Pianist Aaron Benham, Percussion Tony Scandora, Bass Jackson Kidder, Reeds Matt Beck and Lara Regan, Trumpet Jered Montgomery, and Trombone Matt Kowalski) and a vocal-powered cast from top to bottom, Porchlight yet again gives Sondheim fans a chance to relish the composer’s signature sound. Some of these songs are standards of torch singers far and wide, or ones your mind’s ear hears as Sinatra—Good Thing Going, Not a Day Goes By, among others.  This is GREAT music.

This writer was also WOWed visually at the very start, when Projection Designer Anthony Churchill begins to show his stuff. A mosaic of images catapults the story from its mid-70’s time post to today—very today, replete with #MeToo signs, Trump in his most Orange Hitler stance, and more. How fun! Churchill’s ability to bottle the zeitgeist continues as the story rolls the clock back, even thinking to include that iconic clip of Lucy and Ethel trying to keep pace in the chocolate factory. Churchill’s eye for detail even included meshing a bridge image with the trim in the Ruth Page Performance Center, the Porchlight’s new home. Just exquisite!

While this projection design signals place and time, the period perfect costumed cast (Bill Morey, Costume Design) sings up a storm, dancing into an ever changing kaleidoscope pattern on the stage (Musical Staging, Christopher Pazdernik). From a Hollywood poolside party to a Manhattan soiree, the ensemble scenes are the word “voluble” come to life. (Ensemble: Kyrie Anderson; Larry Balducci, Katherine Condit, Christopher Davis, Andrés Enriquez, Frederick Harris, Michelle Jasso, Bernell Lassai III, Cisco Lopez, Alanna Lovely, Liz Norton, Khaki Pixley, and Jonathan Stombres.)

While the entire cast is lively, the six leads make this show especially memorable (Neala Barron as Mary Flynn, Matt Crowle as Charley Kringas, Jim DeSelm as Franklin Shephard, David Fiorello as Joe Josephson, Keely Vasquez as Gussie Carnegie, and Aja Wilshire as Beth.)

For those who have seen and admired Neala Barron performances around town, you too may be struck by how playing Mary Flynn, one of Shephard’s best friends, finally gives her a chance to also show her acting chops.

DeSelm brings a clean cut presence and clear voice to his part, always making his Shephard believable in a sort of Mitt-Romney-Can-Sing kinda way. It’s but a quick minute or so, but when he gets to be solo on stage to silently telegraph his feelings after the It’s a Hit number, you truly get why everyone loves him.

Aja Wiltshire’s rendition of Not a Day Goes By should earn her a gig in every night club in the country, if she so desires.

But the lead among leads, from this writer’s point of view is triple threat Matt Crowle playing Charley Kringas, Shephard’s lyricist who is forever disappointed in their never getting around to making “Take a Left Turn”, THE play they always imagined they would produce to change the world. It’s when Matt Crowle is fast-talking Charley singing Franklin Shephard Inc. early in the play that he shows us his magnetism most. This writer was reminded of being charmed as a child by Danny Kaye. 

Sondheim finds solid partner in Porchlight Music Theatre

How interesting to note that Merrily We Roll Along was, in its first staging, a bit of a flop. As with Marry Me A Little, this writer imagines that Sondheim must find deep satisfaction with Porchlight, and especially Director Michael Weber.

Merrily We Roll Along is the top pick for musical theater junkies, who also might want to note the free screening on February 13 of the film Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by Porchlight Advisory Board Member and the Charlie Kringas of the original production, Lonny Price.

For those who just don’t love Sondheim’s signature sound this is a chance to hear some tunes that are both Sondheim-pure and also ones that are more in keeping with simple melodies, as David Fiorello playing Joe Josephson admonishes Shephard to make—in one of the more endearing and excellent cameo moments of the evening.

Expect fun and expect to be entertained—RECOMMENDED.

 Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

When:

Thru March 17

Thursdays 7:30 PM (except March 8); special matinee Thursday March 8 at 1:30 PM
Fridays 8:00 PM
Saturdays 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM (Except February 3)
Sundays 2:00 PM March 4 and 11 ; 6:00 PM February 4, 11, 18, 25

The final week’s performance schedule is Thursday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 16 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 17 at 4 and 8 p.m. 

Where:

Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 North Dearborn
Chicago

Tickets:

$33+

For tickets call the Porchlight Music Theatre Box Office at 773 777 9844 or visit the Porchlight Music Theatre website.

 

All Photos by Michael Courrier

Co-Publishers Amy Munice and Peter Kachergis

About the Author:  Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Co-Publisher and Editor of Picture This Post.  As Editor, she is the keeper of the Picture This Writers' Guidelines. 

Read more about her and other Picture this Post writers on the Picture this Post Masthead.  

Click here to read more Picture this Post articles by Amy Munice

And, click here for  Travel Stories by Amy Munice with Photography by Peter Kachergis

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