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The barely 3-year-old company, under founder Connor Mickiewicz, has brought Sacramento audiences wonderful contemporary musical theater productions that, for one reason or another, would not otherwise be produced here. But taking on a play like "Merrily We Roll Along," by such a master as Sondheim, required a great deal of growth in almost every area for New Helvetia.
I am happy to report that it has all come together and that their production is a critical success and should be a very rewarding experience for its viewers. The response from the opening night audience validated this. There was much laughter at Sondheim's sly jokes and much applause and cheers for the energetic, strong performances of several great songs.
Undoubtedly the star here is Sondheim's wonderful score and lyrics. While "Merrily We Roll Along" has never reached the popularity of "Sweeney Todd," "West Side Story," or "A Little Night Music," "Merrily" has several great songs like "Old Friends" and "Good Thing Going" that have been favorites of pop, cabaret and jazz performers since the first production opened 31 years ago. The overall score is a joy to listen to.
George Furth wrote the book for "Merrily We Roll Along" basing it on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart non-musical comedy from 1934 of the same name. Furth kept the original structure of moving the story back in time, along with the general theme of reflecting on how these characters have reached the unhappy state they are in at the beginning of the story.
The story centers around Franklin Shepard, who had been a highly successful Broadway musical composer, now a very successful producer of formula films, along with best friend and co-writer Charlie Kringus and writer Mary Flynn. At the beginning of the show, Frank is estranged from his son, first wife Beth and Charlie. Mary, in spite of her one-time success as a writer, is now a bitter alcoholic who rails at Frank at a party celebrating his latest successful film. Although Mary is tossed from the party, her words hit Frank hard and the story starts going back in time from 1976 to 1957.
Sondheim structured the score with what he titled a "Transition," numbered one through seven in this current version of the show, closely following the 1994 York Theatre Off-Broadway revival production. Themes around the title song build through each transition. A changing sign board keeps the audience informed on time and place of each scene. Each of the central characters has a musical theme that builds throughout the show as the character moves closer to the "anything is possible" time of their lives when they are just starting their careers.
The excellent cast and production team is heavily populated with folks with a long association with New Helvetia.
(Image by: Debbie Soto)
Playing the central character is Matthew Schneider, who directed New Helvetia’s first production (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). He fully displays his skills as an actor, singer and dancer. He performs Frank with such a strong stage presence that even when things are at their worst, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy — and you can’t help but be excited when he sings “Our Time” as a young idealist.
Image by: Debbie Soto
Local actor Jouni Kirjola, best known for his work on both sides of the lights at Big Idea Theatre, is a revelation as Charlie. Kirjola is hysterical in the breakup scene between Charlie and Frank during a live NBC interview.
Lauren Parker is another Sacramento native who started out young acting, Music Circus in this case, and went on to be educated and perform elsewhere. Fortunately she retains her New Helvetia connections, and we get to see her spot-on performance as Mary, from the angry drunk at the beginning to the sweet, innocent college graduate working her way through the publishing world with Frank and Charlie’s support.
Beth is played by Kiera Anderson (this is really going to start sounding repetitious): local girl, returning to NHT (acted in “[title of show]” and “Celebration,” choreographed “tick, tick...Boom!” and “They’re Playing Our Song”), holds her Equity Card. She does a wonderful job on her solo, “Not a Day Goes By.”
Courtney Glass started in her teens at Music Circus, graduated from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and has Equity Card. She is premiering at NHT as Gussie Carnegie, Frank’s second wife after a notorious affair and nasty divorce. She does a great job on her numerous songs.
Tristan Rumery (“Little Fish,” “It’s Only Life,” ”tick, tick...Boom!”) is great as the cuckold producer Joe Josephson.
The supporting cast is also excellent. They do a great job on Sondheim’s complicated chorus numbers and take turns performing small character roles. They include Nora Babich, Rosemary Babich, Netty Carey, Julian LeForestier, Tyler Robinson, Julia Soto, Brian Watson and Mike Yee. You might recognize a lot of these names from previous NHT and other local productions.
Chris Schlagle, one of Sacramento’s musical treasures, is the musical director, conductor and keyboardist, with Elaine Lora on drums, Kellen Garcia and Glenn Disney on bass, Jeremy Bolt on trumpet and John Doolittle on woodwinds.
Mickiewicz directs and is the production designer. He directs with a strong eye to what Sondheim tries to create. With the large cast barely able to stand shoulder to shoulder across the 24th Street Theatre stage, Mickiewicz moves the action horizontally onto a multi-tiered set, with the band perched precariously at the top. His staging of each "Transition" alone with every character moving in seperate directions each singing their own piece of music is pretty astounding.
Caitlin Flynn and Rachel Malin created some fun costumes working with the sophistication of the characters and the time frame of the play.
New Helvetia’s “Merrily We Roll Along” is a rare treat in Sacramento. Although it is an excellent play from America’s greatest living composer of musical theater, it is rarely produced, and even then only in major cities. NHT has assembled a great cast, with many members who got their start in Sacramento, who use the opportunity to show just how good they are. The audience gave long applase, cheered, and jumped to their feet in ovations for “Merrily We Roll Along” for good reason.