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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Merrily We Roll Along at Second Generation


two men giving a friendly kiss on each cheek to a happy woman
Jordan Levin, Alexandria Watts, and Josh Wilde. Photo by Stephen Gabris

Second Generation Theatre is just showing off with this one.  In selecting the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, they have taken on one of the most notoriously unwieldy musicals in history and they have triumphed. 


When the debut production tanked in 1981, it was heralded, by some, as the fiasco against which all other Broadway fiascos would be measured.  (That was before Carrie in 1988, of course).  Despite the disappointing script, however, the score was admired and features some of Sondheim’s most irresistible and evocative melodies and lyrics.  These songs worked their way into the cabaret circuit, guaranteeing Merrily’s status as a cult favorite.

Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily We Roll Along follows the life of a successful composer, Franklin Shepard, in reverse chronological order - starting from his unhappy present and moving backwards in time to his hopeful and idealistic youth.

Over the years, many have tried to fix what’s wrong with Merrily We Roll Along and have failed.  That is until the current Broadway production.  Merrily is back on Broadway for the first time since the 1981 debacle and it’s a smash hit. The historic success of this production has been attributed to Maria Friedman’s astute direction and to the remarkable performances of the three central actors: Jonathan Groff as Frank, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley, and Lindsay Mendez as Mary. 


And so Second Generation has successfully taken on this infamously difficult cult classic and have mounted a production concurrent with a terrific and historically successful Broadway run.  How did they do it?


With direction by Michael Gilbert-Wachowiak, choreography by Michael Deeb Weaver, and music direction by Allan Paglia, the production gracefully moves backward in time to the heart-breaking beginning of the story. Along the way, they amaze us with fine performances and move us with deftly acted moments from the lives of characters who are both charismatically compelling and maddingly flawed.  The cast is always well calibrated and frequently lends the production a thrilling beauty, often in ways we might not expect.


a man in evening clothes looking troubled
Josh Wilde as Franklin Shepard adds complexity to the character. Photo Mark Duggan

To be specific, Josh Wilde’s previous work, while excellent, would not have put him at the top of my list to play Franklin Shepard.  Franklin is the Robert Redford of musical theater, that polished guy for whom everything comes way too easily.  By contrast, Wilde typically brings a quality of quirky idiosyncrasy to his characters. He was memorable as insecure and conflicted Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, as goofy Lefou in Beauty and the Beast, as the neurotic Borders Guy in The Aleph Complex.  I was surprised and impressed, therefore, to see his Franklin Shepard, which emphasizes the youthful and dewy-eyed idealism from which he came (and to which, in the chronology of the play, he will return) over the egotism and greed that, as the play begins, have seduced him with the lure of fame and money.


Wilde gives a solid, nuanced, and illuminating performance, which diverges, markedly, from what Mr. Groff is doing in New York.  He imbues his poised and successful Franklin with an undercurrent of doubt that I found marvelously effective and appealing. This Franklin is doomed because he is, ultimately, too needy. He is constantly in search of approval, and frequently from people whose opinions should mean nothing, and from things that have only superficial value.  We understand his unhappiness and much as his ambition, and tragically, so does he.

two people
We agree Alexandria. Wrap him up and take him home. Jordan Levin is adorable as Charley; Miss Watts, ever charismatic as Mary. Photo Mark Duggan

 Jordan Levin is cast entirely to type as Charley Kringas, a man who is loyal and grounded but ultimately frantic in his disillusionment.  We could feel the anticipation of the cognoscenti in the audience as Jordan began to ease into “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” the song in which he exposes his friend’s shallow choices during a television interview. We also feel a thrill as he delivers the number with show-stopping perfection.  This is a vivid performance of the role, augmented by Jordan’s skillful comic punctuations of observations about his wife, Evelyn, his children, and his life. Charley is the character you most wish you knew in real life, and Levin mines the text for every nugget of gold.


a woman holding a highball glass
Alexandria Watts as Mary, when the mask of optimism falls. Photo Mark Duggan

As Mary, Alexandria Watts projects incessant cheerfulness, and yet, she is charged to play the show’s most heartbreaking character. Her unrequited love for Franklin provides the poignant contour to her journey backward from cynical and jaded, washed-up writer in middle age, back to the bright, ambitious young writer.  Watts’ joyful persona plays against the tragedy of her story with crushing impact.  Her rendition of “Now You Know,” placed at the center of her character’s dilemma, is especially fine. Her reactions to those around her are uniformly superb.


With Watts serving as the glue that binds them, these three, Wilde, Levin, and Watts, project marvelous chemistry, which increases as the evening proceeds, and we see the origin of the characters’ friendship.

Kelly Copps, knocking their socks off as Gussie. Photo Mark Duggan

Other highlights include a knock-out performance by luminous Kelly Copps as scheming and manipulative Broadway star, Gussie Carnegie, a sociopathic monster with the face of an angel and a heart of ice.  The role allows Copps to give a demonstration in the art of comic timing and in the landing of a withering putdown.  It also allows her to showcase a full-throttle belt that many didn’t know she even possessed.  The way she navigates “Good Thing Going,” giving the sweet ballad the boffo Broadway treatment, is as thrilling as it is terrifying. I don’t know if Copps owes a debt of gratitude to costume designer Jenna Damberger, or if Damberger owes a debt of gratitude to Copps for the way she looks and moves in those clothes. This is an outstanding performance.

A peak at the real Gussie. Detail of photo by Mark Duggan
a woman singing
Maria Pedro as Beth -- before it all goes wrong, but after we know about it. Photo by Mark Duggan

Maria Pedro is excellent as Beth, a character who, because of the plot’s backward trajectory, appears on the scene like a ghost from Franklin’s past. Her importance is reinforced when she sings “Not a Day Goes By,” one of the best and most complex in this show and in the entire Sondheim cannon.  She interprets it brilliantly. 

a group performing
Louis Colaiacovo as Joe (center) still at the top of his world. Photo by Mark Duggan


Louis Colaiacovo is affectingly wonderful as Joe Josephson, the producer who was once married to Gussie, who was once his office assistant. It’s a sad decline by a comic character and Colaiacovo plays the part movingly.


Ever intriguing Stevie Kemp. Photo Mark Duggan

I was, again, impressed by expert character work from Stevie Kemp who always seems to provide some of the most wonderful and memorable moments in every show she does.  Here, she is divine as a television interviewer and as Beth’s judgmental mother. 


The ensemble of a Sondheim show is always obliged to leap tall buildings. This ensemble is exceptional, and while I cannot know about the tears that were inevitably shed as they confronted Sondheim’s relentless tumble of words, on opening night they delivered admirably. They sounded great, looked graceful, and created the illusion of total composure and self-confidence: Jake Hayes, Sofia Matlasz, John Panepinto, Valentina Rodriguez, and young Carter Riccio, who plays Frank Jr. with noteworthy professionalism. 


The choreography by Deeb Weaver keeps the show moving while establishing style and building momentum.  Among its virtues is that the actors always seemed in their element when going through its paces. 


While this production might be informed by Friedman’s work in New York, it does not strive to duplicate it.  Michael Gilbert-Wachowiak and Michael Deeb Weaver have worked artfully with the players they have to provide a production that, in many ways, moved me more powerfully than the New York production.  To begin with, a show about the disillusionment and compromise that can come with the pursuit of success and fame plays very differently in the modest Shea’s Smith Theatre with local Buffalo actors than it did at the Hudson Theatre, where high powered stars are playing the roles, audience members were pulling up to the theater in limousines, and tickets were selling for five-hundred bucks a piece.


I strongly recommend this production of Merrily We Roll Along, if you can get a ticket. Performances continue through May 12th.


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