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On a 'Roll' With Sondheim

West Coast Ensemble offers a must-see production about friendship over time.

March 02, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"How did you get to be here?" is the inevitable question that goes hand-in-hand with life's missed opportunities.

By way of an answer, the notorious 1981 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical "Merrily We Roll Along" moves backward in time, tracing defining moments for three longtime friends--from their fractious, defeated present to the tender idealism of their youth.

Quirky narrative conceit notwithstanding, Jules Aaron's razor-sharp staging for West Coast Ensemble strikes gold in the show's uncomplicated joys and poignant reflections on friendship, careers and compromised values.

Thematically and stylistically, it's a perfect follow-up to "Company," the other Sondheim-Furth collaboration that Aaron directed to great acclaim at this same venue in 1997.

In both shows, Aaron ignited his entire ensemble with vitality and panache, but in some ways, this is the more significant achievement--"Company" is securely enshrined as a musical classic, but "Merrily" still carries plenty of baggage (the original Broadway production closed after 16 performances, doomed by its challenging chronology and a decision to cast inexperienced youths).

Aaron circumvents these historical missteps by turning to the retooled 1985 La Jolla Playhouse version (which clarifies both timeline and relationships) and shrewdly casting leads who can sing well and capably straddle the requisite age spans.

Anthony Paul Meindl invests Frank, the central Broadway composer-turned-movie producer, with enough regret for his tarnished ideals to keep him sympathetic; as Charlie, Frank's estranged (and even a tad inflexible) partner-lyricist, Richard Israel delivers an engaging mix of Donald O'Connor and Bill Gates; and Lisa Picotte's Mary breaks hearts as the disillusioned voice of their conscience.

*

Jan Sheldrick, Melanie Winger, Stephen Einsphar and Valerie Doran supply distinguished supporting performances amid an ensemble adroitly choreographed by Larry Sousa. Diana Eden's witty costumes reinforce the temporal regression in a chronology that's easy enough to follow--just pay attention to the chorus when they reel off the dates before each scene. The emotional complexity and ambivalence in much of Sondheim's work has often been mistaken for coldness, but ironically, this seemingly abstract show sports some of his most directly heartfelt--and even hummable--songs. "Old Friends," "Not a Day Goes By" and "Growing Up" are emotional powerhouses that can be savored through the most extensive use of reprises in the composer's canon.

This is quite simply a must-see opportunity to catch a long neglected gem at the peak of its form.

BE THERE

"Merrily We Roll Along," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 11. $27-$30. (323) 525-0022. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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