Friends To The Beginning

Merrily We Roll Along
The Huntington Theatre

Through October 15

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The Huntington Theatre Company plans to produce all fifteen of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. This year they have begun their season with Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim play with book by George Furth that had a very rocky beginning in 1981, closing on Broadway after just 16 performances. Sondheim and Furth revised the play in 1992, but not on Broadway. Twenty years after that Maria Friedman, who played Mary in the 1992 production, directed a new production that became a hit in London’s West End.

And now, thanks to Huntington’s artistic director Peter DuBois, Boston audiences have a chance to see this wonderful production with Maria Freidman directing. For a play that had such a rough beginning it has grown into a solid work.

Mark Umbers and Aimee Doherty
Photo; T. Charles Erickson

The story about three friends, Frank, Charley, and Mary is told in reverse. The play begins as their friendship is coming apart in 1976 and works it way back to when they first got together in 1957. It is a story of the challenges facing friends as they move ahead in life and begin to define their values, which can often turn out to be much different as they experience life. There is no doubt audience members will find much that is familiar in the play.

As the play opens we learn of the tension between Frank and Charley who’s friendship had also turned into them becoming a song writing team and playwrights. Creatively they worked well together. The two had become quite successful, but each measures success in a different way, and this has caused much tension between them.

…a stage that is overflowing with talent giving us theatre that is a joy to watch.

Frank and Charley are played by Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley respectively. They are reprising their roles from the West End production and are marvelous together. Mary is played by Eden Espinosa who brings an honesty as well as a tenderness and wit to the role of Frank and Charley’s novelist friend who sees the destructive effects success is having on the friendship but is not able to do anything to stop it. She is also in love with Frank but never lets on to him.

Damian Humbley, Mark Umbers, and Rebecca Gibel
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

In what is one of the musical highlights, Mr Humbley as Charley is positively superb when he encapsulates all of his misgivings about what Frank is doing wth the direction of their career. The number, Franklin Shepard, Inc, takes place during an interview at NBC studios and is a high octane piece that is a show stopper. The audience at the performance I attended loved it, as did I.

There is so much to enjoy about this show. The score has to be structured in an unconventional manner as the story is moving backwards. I would imagine Sondheim enjoyed playing with this musical timeline.  Music Director Matthew Stern is in top form in his treatment of it. The Choreography by Tim Jackson is fantastic. Watching the company moving about the stage during “The Blob” set in 1962 is both very funny and brilliantly done. Other numbers include the touching but upbeat Old Friends, Not A Day Goes By performed beautifully by Jennifer Ellis, and the Vaughn Meader influenced Bobby And Jackie And Jack a comic musical takeoff of the Kennedy’s.

Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Taking this ride back to where it all began is a fascinating journey. Along the way we go from the judgements we make of the characters having seen them after so much occurred to learning how they got that way. It is so interesting to observe as it reminds us how fragile friendships can be, and how what we value as individuals can create conflicts with those we love. It also reminds us of how hard it can be to frame our values when we are not sure of what it means to be successful.

Umbers, Humbley, and Espinosa are just fantastic. Add the remarkable Jennifer Ellis as Beth and Aimee Doherty as Gussie and you have a stage that is overflowing with talent giving us theatre that is a joy to watch.

Jennifer Ellis and Mark Umbers
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Many years ago a very successful man gave me a piece of advice. he told me not to chase success but to chase the idea. Success will follow. I believe by success he meant happiness is seeing your idea blossom. Charley understands this,  while deep inside Frank does too, but just can’t allow himself to accept it. Mary feels the pain for both of them.

I recommend this play as it is not only so well done, but it will also leave you reflecting on your own definition of success and the value of friendship. You could do worse than to ponder such things. And, you couldn’t do better than to see this production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Huntington.

Merrily We Roll Along
Through October 15
Huntington Theatre Company
Boston 617.266.0800