PEMCo delivers dark humor in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’
Caelin Miltko | Thursday, November 3, 2016
College undergraduates often look to the future with unbridled optimism, though the details of life after university can be murky. Pasquerilla East Musical Company’s latest production, “Merrily We Roll Along,” examines the dark side of post-graduate life and what happens when one compromises principles to make money.
“Merrily We Roll Along” is a Stephen Sondheim musical based on a 1934 play of the same name. It begins at the pinnacle of Franklin Shepard (sophomore Mario Simone)’s career, at a party to celebrate the success of his movie “Darkness Before Dawn.”
The joviality of the party quickly deteriorates as it becomes clear that Frank is deeply unhappy with his life. He’s cheating on his wife, his oldest friend Mary is deeply unimpressed with his accomplishments and his former partner has just been awarded a Pulitzer prize for his latest play.
The play then moves backward through time, plotting important moments in the past 20 years which led to his disastrous celebratory party — focusing on his marriages and on his friendships with Mary Flynn (senior Jackie Winsch) and Charles Kringas (senior Tommy Favorite).
The PEMCo production starts a bit awkwardly (though as a disclaimer, it should be noted I attended the final dress rehearsal and there were technical difficulties with the sound at the beginning). As a whole, the cast portrays humor well but struggles somewhat with sincerity, making the first scene a bit wobbly. Winsch carries the scene, pulling off a belligerent drunk exceptionally well.
A flashback to three years earlier to the TV interview that ended the friendship between Frank and Charley picks up the show. Favorite’s rendition of “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” is fantastic — humorous and scathing. Simone’s final rejection of Charley is believable and touching in a way he couldn’t quite pull off in the first scene.
The plot of the first act is a bit of a train wreck — it shows in reverse Frank’s rise to fame and the simultaneously increasing tensions in his personal life, which culminate in a highly public and bitter divorce from his first wife, Beth (junior Meghan Cain).
From the moment she arrives on stage, Cain is a force in the production. Her characterization is perfect, vacillating between the pragmatic, wealth-oriented woman who predicts Frank’s future wife and the supportive, loving woman who works as a legal secretary so that Frank can follow his dreams.
The first act explicates how Frank’s life came to be in such disastrous shambles. In contrast, the second act, displaying all of the naive optimism and hope with which Frank, Mary and Charley once viewed the future, is far more moving. Knowing how it all ends, there is something painful about watching the three of them sing about how their names will be in the future papers.
That being said, the second act features many of the optimistic, happy numbers PEMCo typically features in their musicals. The party at Gussie Carnegie (freshman Caroline Lezny) and Joe Josephson (sophomore Shane Dolan)’s house is particularly lively and humorous. The song “The Blob” is probably the funniest in the musical. Lezny and Simone both shine in this scene — Lezny with her jaded disillusionment about what it means to be an inch from the top and Simone with his optimism as a door finally opens for his Broadway hopes. Like much of act 2, it is bittersweet for the audience as they keep Frank’s disappointing future in mind.
The production uses color in compelling ways. Between each scene change, the ensemble members perform portions of the opening number “Merrily We Roll Along.” During this time, the year displayed on the backdrop changes and white pieces of the clock are removed to reveal various colors underneath. The colors represent the different years — and as an added detail, each member of the ensemble has a small part of their costume that changes as the years progress.
Overall, the PEMCo production is a success — the musical numbers are strong and the set is impressive. The plot of the musical is somewhat darker than much of what PEMCo has done before, and the destruction of Frank’s youthful optimism may be at times a bit too close too home for a college campus. Yet when watched in the right frame of mind, the play provides a vision of the future that may be avoidable.
“Merrily We Roll Along,” directed by Kelsey Dool, runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. in Washington Hall. Tickets are $7 for students, $10 general admission and available now at the LaFortune Box Office.