By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The rudimentary question posed by Tim Dang’s sluggish if pretty staging for East West Players is why any theater — particularly one that’s paying Equity wages — would put on a musical, particularly a Sondheim musical, with a cast that mostly can’t sing. The play is largely about pointlessness, but there must be a more appealing way to drive it home.
West Coast Ensemble fares much better with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along (book by George Furth), Sondheim’s musical remake of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 stage play of the same title, which follows backward in time a trio of friends (Anthony Paul Meindl, Richard Israel and Lisa Picotte) involved in the entertainment industry — some successful, some not, all frustrated.
The musical is legendary for its stink-bomb New York premiere, which severed professional ties between Sondheim and Harold Prince. (It recovered somewhat in a 1985 La Jolla Playhouse revival.) “All we get is fatuous attitudinizing about how ambition, success and money always lead to rack and ruin,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. (The same could be said of The Seagull, which the critics similarly drubbed at its opening.)
The general complaint about Merrilyhas been that its characters — with their situational ethics, hollow lives and career frustrations — are not the kind of people one wants to follow backward in time, or forward, or in any other direction. Borrowing from Rich, the word fatuouscould be easily applied to that argument, as the musical’s point, like Chekhov’s, is not to heap goo upon the characters but to expose their flaws, to view them against the larger shapes of destiny.
Jules Aaron’s staging is so snappy and textured, and his cast so fine, that the characters’ evident shortcomings become submerged, finally, by the score’s intricate, operatic juxtapositions of melodies, rhythms and key signatures. As in Chekhov, the point is not an argument but a feeling. At play’s end, we see the central trio on an apartment roof gazing up as Sputnik hurtles by. They believe they’re on the brink of something significant. By this time we’ve seen their future — their weddings, betrayals and divorces, the flights and nosedives in their careers — and the irony is as blistering as that of the title.
Aaron has never been known for his light touch. His production of Company, a couple of years back for this same troupe, tended to reduce poignancies to campy jokes. Here, however, he shows considerably more respect for the material, and the tone is just right: a tenderness and a sardonic crackling that keeps the maudlin at bay.MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG By GEORGE FURTH (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics) | At WEST COAST ENSEMBLE, 522 N. La Brea Ave. | Through July 8
FOLLIES | By JAMES GOLDMAN (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics) Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Through June 25