A Sondheim Gem Glitters in Lakeland's 'Merrily We Roll Along'

At some time in the future (assuming we all have a future), a composer who also happens to be an inveterate anti-Trump resister may write a musical about this era with a title something like What a Dandy Time! And we will all recognize that title for what it is, a deeply sad and ironic commentary on a miserable stretch in our lives.

So when you peruse the title of the wonderful show now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, Merrily We Roll Along, do not be deceived. This isn't a jolly romp, and yet it is masterfully entertaining. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is a gloriously nasty bath in the venal proclivities of a Broadway composer who jettisons his values and dumps on friends and spouses, all for glory and greed. In other words, it's absolutely luscious.

Director Martin Friedman, a Sondheim scholar and devotee, has poured all his substantial knowledge into this production, and it shows. If you're not familiar with this work, it's probably because it closed on Broadway in 1981 after 16 performances. Since then, it has only been produced now and then, with many audience members and critics objecting to the structure — it tells its story in reverse, beginning in 1976 and ending in 1957 — and the aforementioned acidic tone.

Well, boohoo. It's time for all of us to pull up our socks and recognize this musical for the work of brilliance it is. Indeed, many consider this score one of Sondheim's finest. And although this professional production on the campus of Lakeland Community College isn't perfect, it has enough strong and juicy elements to give this oft-ignored gem a gleaming local showcase.

Based on the eponymous play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily tells the tale of three friends: the composer Franklin Shepard, his buddy and lyricist Charley, and their gal pal and aspiring writer/critic Mary. Frank's life is further complicated by the constant presence of his first wife, Beth, and second wife, Gussie.

When we meet them, Frank is on top of the world, but his pals are in various states of distress. While Frank has adoring groupies abounding, Charley and Mary are bummed. You see, there has been a lot of emotional carnage for others on Frank's road to stardom, and that is expressed with particularly spiteful delight in "Franklin Shepard, Inc." when Charley sings, "The telephones blink/And the stocks get sold/And the rest of us/He keeps on hold."

Because the chronology of the characters' lives is reversed, we don't know yet what happened in the past. But here we are in the future, and so the musical reprises come first. In Act 1, we are treated to Beth's bitter version of "Not a Day Goes By," after she has been dumped for stylish, ditzy Gussie. It isn't until the second act, happening years before, that we hear Beth, Mary and Frank sing a more heartfelt version of the song, when they were young and innocent.

This makes for a compelling ride for the audience, and there are some superb performances to help the process along. As the cynical and pissed off Charley, Trey Gilpin is terrific. His disappointment in his friend Frank oozes from his pores, and he handles his songs, particularly "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," with fierce energy. Absolutely matching him is Aimee Collier as Mary, the songwriting duo's third wheel who drowns her frequent sorrows in sarcasm fueled by whatever's in the nearest bottle. Collier's powerful voice is a particular enhancement in tunes such as the various iterations of "Old Friends."

Neely Gevaart as Beth applies her substantial vocal talent to her songs, and Kelly Elizabeth Smith is consistently amusing as Gussie, a woman with all the depth of a ladybug's wading pool.

The ensemble handles its duties well, particularly when they're lumped together as "The Blob," when Gussie and her equally fatuous guests pay tribute to themselves: GUESTS: "Albee! Warhol! Kurosawa!!" GUSSIE: "They read the books/And go to the shows/And swamp the saloons/Wearing all the clothes ..." GUESTS: "Heavy! Miltown! Gestalt!" This is witty stuff packaged in a format that, for all its challenges, is ultimately quite rewarding.

Oddly, the one element that doesn't quite work is the lead character of Frank, played by Eric Fancher. Frank's storyline is the arc that drives the show, but Fancher, a strong singer, never fully develops a clear and involving character. Carrying his head tilted down for much of the time, it seems Frank is more often depressed than registering his various challenges and triumphs. It's a confusing interpretation that doesn't add the extra spice that could truly take this production to another level.

But thanks to the talented company of actors, crisp musical direction by Jordan Cooper, a lavish-sounding 11-piece orchestra, and Friedman's thorough understanding of Sondheim's theatrical impulses, it all works.

By the end, we get a glimpse of how friendships evolve and devolve. Just like the stylish scenic design by Austin Kilpatrick, featuring a backdrop of suspended sheets of paper (scores and lyrics?) that have been crumpled and then flattened out, we have to live our own lives with the wrinkles we create.