The Encores productions at City Centers have done loads to open me up to new theatre. In 2001 I saw HAIR, starring the likes of a pre-Wicked famed Idina Menzel, and also Luther Creek and Kevin Cahoon. I was also exposed to the likes of Kismet in 2006 and Follies in 2007. Suffice it to say, I owe a great deal to Encores’ producers.
I had purchased a $26 balcony ticket for the final performance of Merrily We Roll Along just to be in the house, hear the music, and feel the energy. When I arrived with my friend (who’d just gotten off a 15 hour flight from India), he realized he’d been given an extra ticket so I was upgraded to row H in the orchestra. I was thrilled. We also happened to be sitting next to Joe Mantello, which I was more stoked about because of his performance in last seasons heart-wrenching production of The Normal Heart.
The lights eventually dimmed and the audience cheered from the moment the curtain rose and revealed the minimalistic set with the orchestra on top. I’d only heard a few songs from Merrily before (whatever was in Side by Side by Sondheim) but I knew it was about three writers and I liked the premise alone with that minimal knowledge.
Sondheim shows are happy.. but only when they start at the end and work their way backwards chronologically, which is exactly how Merrily went. We followed the story of three friends whose friendship had deteriorated over the course of a couple of decades backwards to see exactly how they met. It was truly heart breaking to see how they ended up, but even more so when you witnessed what a happy and hopeful beginning that they had.
My favorite in the company was Celia Keenan-Bolger, who was perfectly cast as novelist Mary Flynn. Colin Donnell sang exquisitely as Franklin Shepard, and Lin-Manuel Miranda surprised a lot of us by handling the role of Charley Kringas with expertise and humor. Not being a singer by nature, a Sondheim score could have been the end of him but he pulled off the difficult score. My favorite number that he sang was Franklin Shepard Inc. The audience errupted when he sat down in his studio seat in exasperation for the final beat. Rounding out the six leads were Adam Grupper (as Joe Josephson, Franklin’s producer), Elizabeth Stanley (as Gussie Carnegie, Franklin’s second wife), and Betsey Wolfe (as Beth Spencer, Franklin’s first wife), each of whom were exceptional vocally and performance-wise. The ensemble, which was quite large, were each and every one entertaining.
We had a few drinks after at the after party and congratulated the cast members that we saw. Stephen Sondheim himself even made it to the party, but only at the very beginning and only to sign something and then he disappeared. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rebecca Luker, Danny Burstein, and Kevin Cahoon, among others were also in attendance.
The low-key party was fun, but the highlight of the night was certainly the show itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if Merrily transferred but honestly, the show as touching as it is, is very insider-y and only very specific groups of people would appreciate it (probably most of those in attendance last night). Maybe Roundabout will pick it up sometimes. Until then, we will all just have to roll along.