A hand holding a program for heater Latté Da's production of "Merrily We Roll Along," the 1981 Stephen Sondheim show, playing at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis through October 30

Review: Doing the Time Warp at Theater Latté Da’s “Merrily We Roll Along” 

If you’ve never seen a production of Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical, you must promise me right here, right now, today, that you’ll see the version currently being staged by Theater Latté Da at the Ritz. Even if you’re not normally a fan of musical theater, this is a non-negotiable autumn arts outing. Don’t take it from me, take it from the random woman my mother spoke to in line at the bathroom between acts; she admitted to not liking Sondheim shows, but on Friday night, there she was at the Ritz anyway. 

I can’t say whether or not that stranger left the theater with stars in her eyes, like the main characters who end the show gazing up at Sputnik from a rooftop in New York City in 1957, but many of my companions did. Most of them were seeing the musical for the first time, after I bought tickets weeks ago for our group of seven, and were enraptured by the unconventional tale of three friends told in reverse, starting in 1976 when they’re 40-somethings who are disillusioned, dysfunctional, and generally unlikable, and working backwards through pivotal moments in their lives (successes, betrayals, marriages, divorces) to show how the starry-eyed composer Frank, lyricist Charley, and writer Mary ended up there.

As is par for the course for Theater Latté Da, this production is like nothing you’ve seen before, even if you’ve been lucky enough to previously see Merrily We Roll Along. To help keep the audience grounded as the story winds its way backwards in time, the scenes are anchored by projections on the back wall which display the time and place. (The simple staging for the most part forgoes backdrops and even leaves the doors to the backstage area exposed.) To help the audience understand that these characters should not be judged simply by one moment in time, like when Frank starts the evening by cheating on his second wife with a starlet, or when Mary drunkenly castigates Frank at the party for his latest movie, the costumes for the entire show are hung up around the stage, a constant reminder of past and future selves.

That means, for most of the show, the 12 actors are all onstage: either in a scene under the lights, changing costumes in the dark, or sitting at the encircling tables that make up the rest of the set. Before the start of this run, Theater Latté Da held a virtual panel that was open to the public with people who were involved in the original Broadway production of Merrily, and all of them were excited by this and other ideas from director and scenic designer Peter Rothstein. Jim Walton (who played Franklin Shepard in 1981) and Ann Morrison (who played Mary) floated the idea of flying to Minneapolis to see it in person. (I looked for them on Friday night. No dice.) 

If, however, you’re like me and have seen a production of Merrily that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed, you may be a bit let down by this take. On the Zoom panel, Rothstein, who is also Theater Latté Da’s founding artistic director, admitted that this show wasn’t on his bucket list. And that’s really no surprise, as the company is only getting to it now, during their 25th anniversary season, after previously staging seven Sondheim shows: A Little Night Music, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, Into the Woods, Company, and Sunday in the Park With George.

If it was on the director’s bucket list, perhaps there’s a chance this Merrily may have been more concerned with the heart of the show, the friendship between Frank, Charley, and Mary (played by Reese Britts, Dylan Frederick, and Becca Hart), instead of the scenic trappings and their intellectual oomph. All of the actors have standout moments: Britts wins the audience over immediately with his easy charm that takes precedence over any of his character’s transgressions; Frederick gets the loudest applause of the night after his pitch-perfect personal breakdown and takedown of his creative partner in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”; and Hart’s heartbreaking rendition of “Old Friends/Like It Was,” an attempt to get Charley to resolve things with Frank, will have you wistfully remembering the friends who faded away in your own life. But in the latter song, Charley sings about how they’re “not the three of us anymore,” that they’re “one and one and one,” and that’s how I feel throughout the show. Sure, they feel like old friends, as evidenced by the 20-year timeline, but I’m not convinced they’re best friends, and this lack of consistent chemistry between the trio dilutes the emotional potency of this otherwise affecting musical. 

You could blame some of these shortcomings on the book itself, by George Furth, as the musical has been criticized for it ever since the show notoriously bombed on Broadway in 1981. But when I saw a production from Fiasco Theater in New York in 2019, I was utterly invested in the friendship, so the potential for greatness is certainly there.

That said, there’s no shortage of great moments in this Minneapolis production. Britta Ollmann stuns the audience when she introduces Beth, Frank’s first wife, with the tear-jerking “Not a Day Goes By.” Vie Boheme gets some of the biggest laughs of the night as Frank’s second wife Gussie. Charlie Clark squeezes all the juice he can out of Joe, a producer, especially in songs like “It’s a Hit!” and “Opening Doors,” and the audience loves him for it. And behind it all, the five-piece band (Elaine Burt, Jason Hansen, Mark Henderson, Paul Hill, and Joan Griffith) play this gorgeous score with both melancholy and moxie. 

Despite certain misgivings, I’ll likely be going back to the Ritz to see this Merrily again before it closes. Meet me there, and don’t be late. In 2020, when the Broadway community celebrated Sondheim’s 90th birthday with a virtual concert, they could have included an overture from any of his shows, but they chose to include the opener of Merrily. It’s one of the most beautiful overtures in the history of musical theater, and it’d be a shame to miss it while you try and find parking in Northeast. 

*If you want to learn more about the show before (or after) you go, watch the devastating documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which chronicles the musical’s creation, unexpected flop on Broadway, and the aftermath for the actors and creators, including the end of the storied collaboration between Sondheim and director Hal Prince.

Merrily We Roll Along

Theater Latté Da
Performed at The Ritz Theater
345 13th Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

Playing through October 30
Buy tickets here

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