2015-05-06 / Features

APAC Artistic Director Bondarin Scores Hit With Merrily

BY GEORGINA YOUNG-ELLIS


APAC’s Merrily We Roll Along. (L. to r.); Nicholas Park as Charley Kringas, Ally Bonino as Mary Flynn, Jack Mosbacher as Franklin Shepard, Rachel Rhodes- Devey as Beth Spencer and Greg Horton as Joe Josephson. 
Photo Michael Dekker APAC’s Merrily We Roll Along. (L. to r.); Nicholas Park as Charley Kringas, Ally Bonino as Mary Flynn, Jack Mosbacher as Franklin Shepard, Rachel Rhodes- Devey as Beth Spencer and Greg Horton as Joe Josephson. Photo Michael Dekker The Artistic Director of Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) Dev Bondarin, has big shoes to fill, having taken on the first musical of her tenure at the organization since Tom Wojtunik stepped down from the post a year ago. Wojtunik directed one success after another at APAC, from the glorious Ragtime in 2008 to the simply classic Allegro in 2014. Bondarin has now also hit the mark with her direction of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which opened April 30.

The play begins in the year 1976 with main character, Frank Shepard, celebrating the successful opening of his new film. He’s at a party with his long-time friends Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn, both bitter that he’s essentially given up his songwriting partnership with Charley, neglecting them both in favor of his new role as Hollywood big shot and immersed in an affair with the star of his film. Charley and Frank were a team much like we imagine Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics of Merrily, and George Furth, who wrote the book, must have been. We even imagine there are some autobiographical hints in this show or, at the very least, that parts of it were drawn from experience. We see how Frank’s relationship with his wife, Gussie Carnegie, is on the rocks, having been the result of an affair itself. Frank’s life, though on a trajectory of wealth and fame, has not ended up where he and his friends had planned. From this first scene the play moves backward in time, and we see the decisions that were made along the way that led Frank, Charley, and Mary to the crisis they’re experiencing in the present.


LilyAnn Carlson as Gussie Carnegie joined by the Ensemble. 
Photo Michael Dekker LilyAnn Carlson as Gussie Carnegie joined by the Ensemble. Photo Michael Dekker Perhaps the backward timeline, while a fascinating and effective device, is the reason that, at the beginning, when the characters are at such low points in their lives, the play also seemed a bit low-energy. As a result, it took me a little time to warm up to the show, but warm up I did, as it steadily gained vigor and momentum.

There are many things to praise about the production, starting with the band, onstage before the action begins, and where they remain throughout. In a word, they are fantastic, top-tier musicians who are the very engine of the show. Keyboard players Ming Aldrich-Gan (also the Music Director) and Karen Dryer provide many of the lovely melodies that Frank Shepard composes and plays on piano during the course of the story. As matter of fact, the piano is a constant presence on stage, and doubles as a clever signboard to display the year in which the action in each scene is taking place. This brings me to the set, designed by Andrea Nice. It is simple and elegant, a series of risers downstage, used for much of the action with very sparse furniture that comes and goes, and a stunning backdrop filled with light that not only assists with the change of scene and mood, but evokes the glamour of both Broadway and Hollywood throughout, thanks as well to the skills of Lighting Designer Jesse Sheldon. The costumes by Jennifer Jacob are subtly perfect to each year the play encompasses, going back to 1957.

The actors are wonderful as well.

Jack Mosbacher as Frank is physically reminiscent of a young Robert Redford. His acting is clean and strong, as is his singing voice. He is the perfect choice for this role, maintaining our sympathy no matter what bad decisions his character may be making. Nicholas Park as Charley is a delight, a powerful comic presence with lightning fast timing and great physicality. Ally Bonino as Mary was not quite convincing in her drunken scene at the start, but otherwise makes our hearts ache for this complex and likeable character. She also has a beautiful voice that drives home the poignancy of her character’s heartbreak. Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Frank’s first wife, Beth, delivers a flawless performance, as does Greg Horton as theatrical producer Joe Josephson, and Joanna Carpenter in her role as TV Newswoman. One of the most compelling stars of the show, however, is LilyAnn Carlson as Gussie. This gal is pure Broadway, both the character and the actress. Everything about her performance is effortless – her acting, her singing, her sense of comedy, her vulnerability. I found it difficult to take my eyes off her while she was onstage; a mix of Streisand, Liza and a tad of Betty Grable, she nails the hard-bitten, yet glamorous Broadway star. The ensemble members, who handle a variety of secondary roles, are all first-rate singers, dancers, and actors. They have a lot of jobs to do, but their main purpose is to be a sort of chorus, asking Frank the hard questions: “How did you get so far off the track? Why don’t you turn around and go back?”

The music is gorgeous as one would expect. While not at all syrupy musicaltheatre fare, it is also more accessible than one finds in later Sondheim shows. Many songs are lovely and memorable, most notably “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By,” and “Our Time.” The songs are often reprised here and there throughout, making them old friends indeed by the end. This show had me humming the tunes to myself several days later with a renewed appreciation of a classic story, great music, and timeless characters. Merrily We Roll Along not only left me with a joyous feeling, but made me want to come back and see it again.

The show runs through May 23, and you can get your tickets at APACNY.org. I’d do it now…they won’t last.

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