by Lynn on February 28, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Annex Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Shifting Ground Collective. Playing until March 2, 2024.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by George Furth

Directed by Joshua Kilimnik

Music director, Ethan Rotenberg

Choreographer, Shannon Murtagh

Set/prop design by Sarah Yuen

Costumes by Pasha Bardell

Lighting by Jadyn Buchanan

Cast: Dallis Brinkman

Randy Chang

Oliver Daniel

Sydney Gauvin

Max Goodman

Mona Hillis

Ian Kowalski

Duncan Lang

Jameson Mosher

Collette Richardson

Jada Rivkin

Jessica Rosales

Azaria Shams

Evan Sokolowski

A show about friendship, following your dreams and the roadblocks that present themselves that throw friends off course, given an energetic production by a committed cast.

The Story. Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn have been friends for 20 years. Franklin was a composer; Charley was a playwright and Mary was a writer. They met when they were young idealistic and eager to change the world with their art. Franklin and Charley collaborated on writing meaningful musicals until Franklin was lured away to by money to produce shallow movies which earned him more money. All the while Charley waited for Franklin to return to working together and their plans to write together. Mary could do nothing but watch as her friendship with Franklin dissolved.

The Production. NOTE: This Stephen Sondheim/George Furth 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along, is in turn based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. In both cases, the form of the story is the same: it’s told backwards.

Shifting Ground Collective is a scrappy company of young actors devoted to the musical form. Their previous show was Ordinary Days and it was eye-popping impressive in its integrity, commitment and determination. It was a small show presented with economy but was not shoddy as a result. “Impressive” is an understatement.

By contrast, Merrily We Roll Along with its cast of 14 is a mammoth undertaking. The company under the watchful eye of director Joshua Kilimnik is full of commitment, focus, determination and joyful embrace of the material.

Choreographer Shannon Murtagh sets the tone with the rousing opening number “Merrily We Roll Along” with dancers swirling on and off. Trying to get a sense of what is going on is a touch fuzzy, but it gets into focus quickly.

In the first scene an agitated man in a suit enters, slams something on the table that looks like a gold statue on its side and proceeds to snort some cocaine. Hmmm. We learn the man is Franklin Shepard (Duncan Lang). A suggestion: if Franklin has just won an Academy Award then he has to slam it on the table right side up and not on its side so that the audience can see and assume it’s an Academy Award. Best not to confuse the audience from the get-go.  

From there the show unfolds backwards from 1976 with Franklin hosting a party because of his success as a film producer. Mary Flynn (Colette Richardson) his writer friend from years before is there and she’s drunk. Charley Kringas (Jameson Mosher) is not there because Charley expressed his frustration with the always absent Franklin on a televised interview and Franklin has not forgiven him.

The story unfolds backwards in about three-year increments as we see how success and money were the alure for Franklin but not for his good friends Mary and Charley. Mary was secretly in love with Franklin and Charley kept hanging on that Franklin would come back to the partnership and write meaningful musicals with him as they planned and dreamed. In the intervening years Franklin had two broken marriages and was unfaithful to his friends and didn’t show up when he said he would. Charley continued to write and win awards. Mary continued to write but success was not plentiful and she began to drink.

We see the promise, youthful dreams and convictions of the young Franklin, Charley and Mary. They cared intensely for one another and were constantly offering words of support and concern. Youthful enthusiasm is a fierce commodity both in the characters and the energetic cast.

Joshua Kilimnik negotiates the cast with efficiency and economy. He has details in his direction that convey so much information. When Charley is quickly introduced to Mary and her friend Evelyn in the last scene—and the actual beginning of the story—Charley takes a quick look back at Evelyn. We know she will be the woman he marries. It’s a small bit of business but it says so much.

Because Shifting Ground Collective (there is a lyric in one of the songs in the show about “shifting ground” so that’s where the company got its name), is a company on a tight budget, the creatives have to be clever to indicate what year it is besides in the songs. A waiter in the first scene carries a tray of drinks with a small sign that says, “1976”. Other signs with dates are larger.

The large orchestra lead by Ethan Rotenberg spreads out along the upper balcony and while they play loudly, they do not drown out the singers. The singers hold their own.

Duncan Lang as Franklin Shepard, Colette Richardson as Mary Flynn and Jameson Mosher as Charley Kringas all have powerful singing voices and can act. I look forward to seeing each of them in whatever comes next.

Merrily We Roll Along is a huge endeavor for this youthful cast and what they lack in nuance and subtlety, they make up for in enthusiasm, focused commitment and pride in what they do. Well worth a visit.

Comment. In the show Stephen Sondheim sends himself up by flinging a few barbs about his detractors. Franklin and Charley have to contend with producers who say that to be successful you have to have songs that people can hum and according to the producer he can’t hum Franklin’s music. People have said the same of Sondheim. But then there is the exquisite song “Not a Day Goes By” that sung in one context is a song of regret and in another is a love song. And in either case it’s eminently hummable—as are most of Sondheim’s works, you just have to apply effort.  

Shifting Ground Collective presents:

Runs until March 2, 2024

Running time: 2 hour 45 minutes, (1 intermission)

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