Word of Mouth: by The Wallis Youth Theatre Company
By Veronica McFarlane
Word of Mouth at the Wallis Theatre is an eye-opening experience for everyone who sees it. It’s a show created by the actor’s themselves (ranging from 17-23 years old) that reflects the good and the bad of humanity itself, and more specifically, how our words affect each other. The words chosen in this play have been selected from different speeches, books and poems using messages like racism, sexism, homophobia and pure hatred. These writings remind us that the creative ideas that we have and hold really do make an impact and will not be silenced. The show opens with the stage set as a clean slate. The actors use only wooden boxes as seats and props and costume design is uniformly grey tones, showing us that it’s not a certain look that is important in this performance, it’s the creative storytelling through movement and what is being spoken.
The development of characters throughout the play is evident. In the beginning, almost everyone is ignorant, in a trance of one evil character that wears a mask. They all follow him – the ‘Trickster’. After every scene each person stops to think about their lives and other people’s lives around them. Little by little they would slowly stop following the hatred. They all come together in the end to remember that they are all humans, each with their own lives and they ignore the man with the mask completely. The man with the mask was a very interesting and bold character. Played by Alex Sheldon, the Trickster represents the power that people have in their words and how they abuse it by using their power to manipulate others. The red and evil looking mask, which was actually made by Sheldon, is a symbol of how we all present a different ‘self’ to the world which eventually either falls away or becomes embraced.
One thing that is prominent throughout the show is the choreography. Everything that is being said is represented in some kind of dance that shows the feelings and mood that the speech is trying to portray. This brings it to a visual level, which breaks down each speech. The strong rhythmic arm and leg movement gave a consistent feeling of struggle through each piece and eventually tied the characters together in a resolute decision to turn from the Trickster. Another interesting visual was the light bulbs over the each person on the set. You would see the light bulbs flicker or turn off and on, also representing the mood and character development.
After the show, there was a question & answer session with the actors, director and assistant director where the audience asked questions about the production. They were asked what they think the theme of this show was and almost unanimously answered: the power of language. Some also said that the theme was acknowledging that there is fear and hatred in the world, but we should all just stand together to create peace and love instead.
This performance really made me think about everything in our world; violence and peace, fear and love, hatred and respect. It has started conversations with my friends and family and has made me think about the power of my words and ideas in my everyday life.
Dan Zanes and Friends
By Chloe Clark
Dan Zanes and Friends was an upbeat, interactive musical performance. The main genre of songs played were country and folk music. The performance was geared toward younger children to enjoy. The musicians encouraged the kids and parents to get up from their seats and dance in the front, sing along, and use hand gestures. For example, the musicians taught a little bit of American Sign Language for the audience to use throughout one song. The performance overall was diverse in a sense that they performed songs in various languages including Spanish, English, and Korean. It was warming to see everyone dancing, having a good time, and truly “having a party” as Dan Zanes exclaimed to the audience, not just a typical musical performance. I enjoyed the lively, engaging atmosphere created by the musicians and I would recommend for small children.
Jacob Jonas The Company
By Maegan Fellner
Jacob Jonas The Company's unique style is a blend of ballet, break dance, and contemporary and that combination was the first thing that drew me in. Then, I realized just how talented the performers were.
I could see the amazing coordination and trust that each dancer had in one another. It felt as though each dancer had their own presence. This added to the performance greatly, as I could appreciate each dancer even more.
I particularly enjoyed In A Room on Broad St., because of the ingenious use of props. I also thought the second work, f l y, was interesting, partly because of the challenging moves and partly because of the symbolic relationship between the two dancers. On the flip side, my least favorite piece was Grey. It lacked interest, and this was due to the repetitiveness of the song and actions.
The changes in lighting, as subtle as they were, made a surprising difference in the mood of each scene. The music was an integral part of the show, and everything was perfectly synchronized to it.
As this young company grows together and becomes more polished, I think that Jacob Jonas The Company has a bright future ahead, and look forward to seeing more from them.
By Maegan Fellner
The JACK Quartet, comprised of members Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards and Jay Campbell, is a clearly talented group. Each member showed extreme focus and a certain oneness with their instruments.
When the quartet first walked out onto the stage and started to play, the setup, including the lighting, made it feel like the concert was very intimate and personal, like they were playing just for me. It felt like the members were connected with each other and their music.
The two violinists, Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, seemed especially connected, and they played in sync quite often. Jay Campbell, the cellist, used his instrument in more ways than I could ever think of, and because of that, he was my favorite musician.
The music itself was not the type of music that I walked out humming, or that stuck in my head, but it did make an impression. My favorite piece was Tetras, and this is because of the bizarre use of instruments, and underlying jazzy beats. Although a bit indifferent to the very intense, and sometimes very loud music, the evening left me inspired and with great appreciation for the musicians' superb talent.
Word Of Mouth
By Jack Grazer
The Wallis Youth Theatre Company’s first production, Word of Mouth, was thought provoking and emotionally moving. This original performance was seeded from the concerns and questions around this last election, the politics and social concerns demonstrated across the USA. The whole world watched and engaged in conversation, and grew into an invitation to examine: words, language, communication and meaning in world that can feel disconnected. At the heart of this piece are these questions: how can we communicate what is going on for us without feeling judged? Can we hear each other and ultimately feel each other and our individual connection to the whole? Can we see each other and care for one another when we have differing viewpoints? How can we come together in ways that honor our individuality? What is fair and humane? Word Of Mouth, avant-garde and somewhat abstract, was an impressive interpretive performance about mind, truth, body and meaning!
Metaphorically, as in out of the dark and into the light, the dark beauty of the black box theatre provided a powerful setting for what came forth: physicality, music and performances. Life. Each filled with reaching as if growing from the fertile grounds of the earth into the Spring of creation (toward the light), and like Spring what came to life on the stage sprung forth from the growing search and inquiry of artistic imagination.
The director, Madeleine Dahm, faithful to the creative hearts and minds of her company of young artists, is a testament to the power of listening, of communication and collaboration. The strong significance of the use of the mask and the movement and the symbolism in the light and dark were all powerful representations of the cast. The outstanding effort the actors put into the show was phenomenal. Every single word that the actors spoke was like a beating drum because every line had meaning and provoked a dot-to-dot heart and mind connection. The overall performance was a massive, powerful explosion!
The lighting was unique, as shadows danced from almost every corner of the stage. Lightbulbs hung from the ceiling and when Alex Sheldon, the actor who played the enemy, would hit them they would either turn on or off. His masked character brought a dystopian feel to the presentation, as the characters would scurry upon his arrival. His control was palpable. This beautifully executed interpretive theatre piece was a reflection on how members of our society interact. The cast was passionate about the concept of the show and let it live through them on stage. With the ever evolving world of words, language, communication, conflict, connection and all the opposites of these, I could see Word of Mouth as a world famous production one day!
Jacob Jonas the Company Review
By Anna Polin
Jacob Jonas the Company is spectacular dance performance with every form of dance you can think of. It is amazing how you can easily understand the story without them speaking a single word. For this particular show I suggest sitting as close as possible to the stage because it is more fascinating use of costumes and great use of props. It is more interesting to see the performers close up to notice their sudden movement. One of my favorite parts was when there was just one spotlight on the whole stage with dancers coming and going letting you focus on one person instead of several. The performers on stage performed amazing stunts which includes flipping, complicated break dancing, and flexibility like I’ve never seen before. I was able to talk with the performers at the end of the performance and it was really cool to hear Jacob’s explanation of every act. For example the first act resembled a heart rate machine beginning to stop, indicating death. This related directly to Jacob’s life because he recently lost a family member. In conclusion the show was spectacular. I would recommend this show to anyone who loves dance.
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet
By Frederick Roman Minser
The four musicians that comprise the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Daniel Brubeck, Christopher Brubeck, Mike DeMicco, and Chuck Lamb are some of the best Jazz players I have ever seen. This particular performance, a tribute to their father David Brubeck, showcased some of his classic songs to perfection. You could feel how emotionally invested the Quartet was in the music as you too were moved by each piece. The members of the Quartet all had great chemistry with each other and listened closely to one another. Each solo was incredible as they showed off their true musical skills. The drummer, Daniel Brubeck was especially exciting as he played so fast he broke a drumstick. Christopher Brubeck was MC and was brilliant and funny as he cracked jokes about California and made references to Shakespeare‘s The two Gentlemen of Verona. It was apparent their passion for their father is what drove them to give it their all and create magic for the audience.
The Brubecks Bring Back the Jazz
By Liza Freiberg
On a chilly night in Beverly Hills, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts gave a warm welcome to the Brubeck Brothers Quarter. Brothers Daniel and Christopher Brubeck, along with friends and band members Mike DeMicco and Chuck Lamb, delivered a one hundred fifteen minute odyssey of jazz, ranging from themes of love, war, and happiness.
Upon walking into the theater, a person would have noticed the quartet’s rounded instrumental setup, as if meant to complete a circle with the domed display of the audience’s seats. The already intimate environment became even more personal when Christopher Brubeck brought himself to the microphone to recount the history of the quartet and introduce each member. Christopher spoke after every song, and so eloquently set the stage for the theme behind the next tone of jazz that the quartet would play. With such guidance from Christopher, it doesn’t matter whether this concert was someone’s first or hundredth exposure to live jazz – anyone would feel the vibe of the music and what it meant to convey.
To the right of Christopher, from the audience’s perspective, stood Mike DeMicco, guitarist and composer for the Brubeck Brothers Quarter. Counting the band in for every song, Mike strummed off a chain reaction for the rest of the men to follow. His free pace about his area of the stage gave an impression of a confident and comfortable performer. Mike’s purpose was not to show off his talent, but rather to incorporate it with the rest of the group, ultimately providing the audience with the optimal experience of entertainment.
Daniel Brubeck also connected with the audience, for after each one of his sectional features, the crowd erupted in a rage of applause. It is a marvelous experience to see an audience so perceptive that it claps on cue, as if their reaction is a natural instinct to an innate tie with jazz itself.
Each member of the quarter stood out, but pianist Chuck Lamb stole the show with his smooth stroking classical solo. He began by plucking the strings under the lid of the piano, which he did by placing solely his ear on the piano, the keys not even visible to his eyes. He subsequently transitioned his way into a classic melody, and then jived-up his tune so that the rest of the band could merge.
Whether it be the result of endless hours of practice, or simply a love for jazz, the Brubeck Brother Quartet presented a deep bond and awareness of each others’ musicality, so that no one instrument overpowered another.
By Frederick Roman Minser
It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to hear these four musicians; their unique style captivates the mind. The four band members Jay Campbell, John Pickford, Austin Wulliman, and Christopher Otto used their instruments to tell a story. Jay Campbell plays Cello while the other three play violin. I was very shocked to see how differently they all fit together and how well it worked. During an interview with the band, they described each piece of music, which helped display an image when each piece was performed. Looking back after hearing the musical piece they were very accurate in describing them as an argument. It seemed like each musician was battling each other for a voice that marveled the audience.
The whole play list had an eerie vibe comparable to something you would hear in Psycho. During the interview they jokingly laughed at the idea of using plane noises in a song saying, “it wouldn’t appeal to a live audience” this made me curious later on when they magnificently incorporated the sound of a creaky door into their piece. I was disappointed that they did not announce each song they were playing since they mentioned earlier that they might not be playing them in order. Other than that, they created an incredible listening experience for the crowd.
Merrily We Roll Along
By Noelle Trost
While West Side Story is regarded as Stephen Sondheim’s testimonial to Shakespeare, Merrily We Roll Along contains all of the same elements of Shakespeare’s tragic hero that make his plays so iconic. In this semi-autobiographical musical produced in 1981, the life of Franklin Shepard, played by Aaron Lazar in the Wallis Annenberg rendition, is traced backwards from 1976 where he is a successful, but blasé composer surrounded by an artificial group of other eminent producers and performers, all the way back to 1957 where he is encircled by his two best friends, Charley Kringas, played by Wayne Brady, and Beth Spencer, played by Whitney Bashor, dreaming of all the sensational pieces to be created together one day. His story depicts an innovative artist’s loss of individuality in the cold nature of the entertainment business. His desire for wealth and ambition for success, otherwise his tragic flaws, swallows up his passion for music and the strong bond he once had with his companions.
Whereas Merrily We Roll Along is critiqued for its perplexing backwards structure, the Wallis Annenberg performance of this piece demonstrates the musical’s comprehensibility is dependent on the director’s ability. Michael Arden does a wonderful job of making transitions between time periods clear and making the plot easy to follow. Stephen Sondheim himself makes the musical an accessible piece to all audiences by providing contextualization in the form of news reports throughout the story. The acting, singing and dancing ability of the cast is spectacular, with pieces such as “Not a Day Goes By” and “Like it Was” standing out as emotionally touching pieces in the overall production. However, in terms of the actual characters of Merrily We Roll Along, the role of women throughout the play is somewhat outdated from a modern perspective. While each role is deeply complex, each with their own motives and biases, making the production unique, most of the key female roles are either a “love interest” or an “unrequited lover” to Franklin Shepard, no matter how successful or independent that character is. Nonetheless, the portrayal of these characters is very enjoyable, traditional or not.
What made this production of Merrily We Roll Along by the Wallis Annenberg memorable was definitely its technical aspect. While working with a minimalist set can sometimes be a gamble, it proved to be successful in this circumstance as the ample space gave the cast plenty of room to dance across the stage, while still providing the audience with enough props to understand setting of the scene. The lighting in particular was brilliant (almost to the point of blinding the audience at some points). In the beginning of the show, the multitude of lights from the vanities surrounding the scene gave the stage an air of extravagance, highlighting Franklin Shepard’s major success. By the end (or, really, the beginning) there is almost no light at all, except for that behind the characters who are watching the sunrise, creating an aura of young optimism. Overall, whether for the complexity of the plot and characters or the genius behind the set and lighting, Merrily We Roll Along is definitely a must-see for anyone in the mood for an entertaining, but cautionary tale.
Merrily We Roll Along
By Maegan Fellner
Merrily We Roll Along has been known as the play that completely bombed the first time that it was on Broadway. It may also be known as the musical from which some of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved music came. The Wallis has reimagined the play, while keeping the famous musical score the same.
If there is anything to know about this play, it's that it is backwards. The whole story is told starting out when Frank Shepard, the main character, is having a party with his rich "friends," at his lavish house. With him is Mary, his oldest friend. She has been trying to keep her friendship with Frank alive, but has failed. Frank continues to act like the cool kid, but behind the scenes, everything is falling apart. This almost leads the viewer to wonder "How did he get here?" and "How did he become who he is today?" The scene quickly shifts to the backstage of a radio room. Here we really get to know Frank's other old friend, Charlie Kringas. Mary is desperately trying to keep Charlie and Frank from fighting. Though Charlie and Frank had been very good friends beforehand, now their friendship is on the fringes. We continue to rewind back in time, meeting Gussie Carnegie, the power hungry Broadway star, Joe Josephson, Gussie's ex-husband, and other intriguing characters until we finish at the start of the threesome's journey.
The writing was fair, but I was not impressed with the story itself. The only thing that made the show unique to me was the backwards aspect. I don't mind any of the scenes, most are mediocre to good, and I feel like some just went on for way too long. A couple of the more melancholy scenes were the ones that I felt needed the most attention, such as the scene where Frank and his ex-wife Beth are getting divorced. I may also mention that Mary's costuming, in this scene in particular, was not flattering.
The music really matched the mood and time for almost every single scene. Some of my favorite songs were "Franklin Shepard Inc." a musical number sang by Charlie Kringas about his frustration with Frank's obsessive business notions; "Opening Doors" one of the last songs, is sang by all three of the main characters and conveys an upbeat, motivated vibe: and finally, "Old Friends", the song that Mary often starts when she wants to make a point about Franklin and Charlie staying as friends. I also enjoyed how some of the songs, like "Not a Day Goes By" were sang twice or more, with different emotions and by different characters. Overall, the music often shows a softer side of the otherwise rough-around-the-edges characters, as well as making me smile.
The costuming was fair, if not exceptional on Gussie and Charlie, and sub-par for Beth. Frank was always wearing suits, so there was less of a change in him. The lighting was not bothersome, and helped convey the mood, especially during the scenes where Franklin was talking to Gussie, such as during the musical number "The Blob". The only time that I did not like the lighting was when it shone straight at my face, and there were a couple of times when the show used that effect. Finally, there were a couple of scenes where the actors were smoking, and the smell of the smoke really filled the theater, something unpleasant for me.
The actors all did a pleasing job, with a highlight on the singing. The actor that really shined for me was Wayne Brady, who played Charlie Kringas. He sang with such passion, and he had some extra difficult scenes, with lots of ups and downs, that Brady delivered very well. I also really enjoyed Saycon Sengbloh's portray of Gussie. She used her voice to the fullest extent, and conveyed emotion strongly. I also liked Melody Butiu's character portrayal. She was part of the ensemble, and she also played a newspaper journalist and a radio reporter. Frank's character, played by Aaron Lazar, seemed a bit stiff at times, but otherwise the acting was well executed.
The show was fun to watch, kept me engaged for the most part, and was accompanied by a live orchestra playing that wonderful Sondheim music. I did not really like the technical side, some examples of this being Mary's costuming, the lights shining at the audience, and the occasional cigarette smoke. I did think that the acting was strong, and I liked the colored lights, which helped to convey the various moods. The play is not much unlike the main character, Frank -- a musical, rough-around-the-edges piece of showmanship, and I would recommend checking it out.
Merrily We Roll Along
By Anna Polin
Merrily We Roll Along is a production about three friends and the fading away of their friendship because of the consequences of their life choices and mistakes. What makes this musical exceptional is the form it is presented in. It begins in the 1970’s and ends around the 1950’s. In other words the story is going back in time.
This performance begins around the 1970’s with three friends all separate from each other. Frank, one of the friends is at a pool party with his friends and coworkers all drunk and weird. His new wife, Gussie a famous actress who thinks too well of herself is one of the main causes of his life turning around. The lighting during this scene seemed to be fine but the props and background didn’t let the audience know they were at a pool. It’s important to know is that during the beginning of the performance bad language was used as well as there was a lot of unruly behavior because the characters are drunk. This part isn’t suggested for young children.
I really liked when the performance was going back in time they would have big lights telling you what year it was. I found this very helpful since it was going back in time and it made it he a lot less confusing. The costumes in the show were great but some characters you couldn’t tell that they were getting younger because their wardrobe and hair didn’t change much. My favorite part of the show was probably the music and songs. The songs were very fast beat although they didn’t always go with the plot. The props were wonderful. I especially like that around the stage there were little dressing mirrors sending a message that your life is like a show. Except for the first scene I thought the setting was wonderful and loved al of the detail.
The only thing I think they should have added to the performance was one more scene. At the end they show the three friends meeting, but I think they should have added another scene of the friend back in the present remembering all of this and turning his life back around. This would be an important addition because this man, Frank chose fame over, his wife, child, and friends and I think it would be important to show other people that it is always possible to fix your mistakes. Overall the show was amazing although I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under 10 to watch without an adult. But I would definitely suggest young adults watch this show. It is a beautiful performance about real life things that could happen and that you should always count on your friends because friends are more important than fame.
Merrily We Roll Along
By Veronica McFarlane
“Merrily We Roll Along” is a show that brings hopes and dreams to life, and highlights the lesson of life’s consequences from our choices. A wonderfully fun surprise is that the story itself goes backwards starting with three friends’ whose journeys end at the beginning of the performance. As the story continues, Franklin Shepard, the main character, tries to figure out the moment when his friends start to vanish from his life. We are shown how decisions he made to achieve fame and success affected other areas of his life.
This musical almost seems like an every-day story, with everyday drama. But when the story is going backwards, the show really becomes unique and interesting. Frank, Charlie, and Mary are three friends, played by Aaron Lazar Wayne Brady and Donna Vivino. The audience follows their friendship throughout the story. Since it is going backwards in time, the characters and their chemistry become stronger and more loveable. As they got younger, we could see what unified them as friends. Their passion to create and perform was exciting and it was almost like we were part of their journey as we stood backstage with them. At the end, you finally get to see how they became friends and how their dreams started.
Personally, my favorite thing about this musical is the younger versions of the three friends. Between each scene, they would show memories through beautiful dances and even interact with their older selves. The dancing fit the theme of the musical, and projected friendship very well. The classic Steven Sondheim score told the story of three very creative friends who were not afraid to share their dreams, and the actors did a beautiful job portraying that feeling of being inspired and powerful.
The entire cast is on the stage throughout the whole play. There is a “backstage” visually set up facing the audience where the actors would make wardrobe changes in front of their lit mirrors or set props around the stage. Sometimes I would find this distracting, but then there were moments when the whole cast would watch the scene as it is played to the audience and their interaction brought focus to the story unfolding. This gave me an “All the World’s a Stage” feeling; one that reminds us that we are constantly being watched. The costumes were so authentic that I really did believe that I was going back in time, especially when we were taken back to the 1960s. The costumes of the three friends never really changed based on the time period, but they did look younger gradually as the years went by. It was really clear how far you were going back and where you were based on the costumes and the setting.
“Merrily We Roll Along” is a musical that inspires you to follow your dreams. It’s a great reminder to keep your friends close as well, for those friends help, inspire, and push us forward every day. “Merrily We Roll Along” taught me that even the littlest choices we make can change our future.
Merrily We Roll Along
By Chloe Clark
The musical, Merrily We Roll Along, directed by Michael Arden, is a complex musical that has a backwards structure in order to portray a theme which displays the role of true friends and how the consequences of their choices can lead in certain directions.
The play was different because it was performed backwards, to show the downfall of three friends even though they originally began their lives with promising futures and strong careers. The backwards structure can be very confusing to follow but the songs worked on varying levels to contribute to the content of the story. For example, in the first song, the lyrics included “how did you get to be here” and “time goes by”, which adds to the theme of the play.
The lighting on the stage was bright and the years were specifically highlighted with stage lights which were significant in helping the audience follow the backwards timeline, from 1976 to 1959. The rest of the stage was filled with many dressing rooms in the background where some of the actors waited. Although the background could distract from the focus of the play, having the open dressing rooms can portray another theme of how life is a stage and there is always an “audience” watching, which makes one aware of their mistakes and choices. The changing of sets in different scenes was smoothly transitioned with the addition or subtraction of a few props such as a plant or a sign. Although there was not a lot of choreography as a group, the dancing performed was smooth and in sync. There was also a group of three who occasionally danced and they had excellent technique that drew the audience across the stage with them.
The actors in general had really nice acting skills and emotions that were portrayed through their tone or body language. For example, when one of the characters, Gussie, left the house in the first scene, she closes the door and leans against it in hatred and sadness. The fact that the audience is still able to see this occur even after she leaves the scene is another significant aspect of the play. Although there were not a lot of props used, there is one significant role the door plays; it signifies the action of exiting and the end of a beginning. Although doors normally symbolize beginnings and opportunities, the door prop is used to contrast with this idea. One other significant prop was the use of mirrors, where one of the main characters, Frank, stands surrounded by three mirrors and looks at himself. This scene is insightful to the play because it provides a sense of not only literal reflection, but symbolic reflection as well. The mirror reflects consequences, both positive and negative.
Overall, the play had a unique concept because of the backwards arrangement. Although this can be confusing, by going from end to beginning, this displayed how the main characters roll along in a timeline filled with not so merry consequences.
Merrily We Roll Along
Review By Jack Grazer
The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Artist-in-Residence, Michael Arden, director of “Merrily We Roll Along” has done an excellent job bringing what used to be a total bomb of a play to becoming a spectacular miracle of a musical! Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest composers in theatre history, continues to inspire audiences with his passion for musical storytelling in this show. Thanks to Tony Award winner and writer, George Furth for this story and a big Bravo! to director, Michael Arden for directing this relatable story of life and friendship: choices and trajectories, sometimes, best understood by looking backwards and finding the hilarious, inspiring, profound and bittersweet moments.
The history behind this musical isn't at all what anyone would think it would be. It was originally a play by Kaufman and Hart and it was considered to be a major flop by critics. Until Sondheim came across the play it was nothing but a bump in the long road of classic theatre. It was hard for many to understand the concept of life in reverse. It was very different from what people were used to in terms of plays.
The creative director, Michael Arden did an excellent job. The acting was a phenomenal experience that was a breathtaking ride through song and character embodiment. The elements of the script were perfectly portrayed by the actors on stage. The characters and how they evolved (or in this case “devolved”) was brilliantly touching, yet motivational. The relationships and friendships between the characters were organic in their evolution as we witness their life trajectories in reverse.
All was perfect with the cast synergy between Aaron Lazar, (Franklin Shepard), Emmy winner, Wayne Brady (Charley Kringas) and Donna Vivino (Mary Flynn) as longtime college friends having grown into adults. With such ultimate professional talent between them, the performances were seamless. Tony nominated actress, Saycon Sengbloh (Gussie Carnegie) was an epic showstopper with her heart-grasping voice and dynamite saucy attitude. Ovation award nominee, Amir Talai (Joe Josephson) was a hilarious, egotistical Broadway manager who always seemed to give the absolute worst advice in the most brilliant way and Whitney Bashor (Beth Spencer), with a gift from the angels of song, was an explosion of light, yet she knew how to cool things down when things would get too hot.
The stage lighting and the set design, with a glimpse backstage into the dressing room and the lighted dressing mirrors, was a brilliant invitation. With some of the backstage mystery removed, the audience gets a look into the real life of the characters the actors portray. For performers, and others, it’s a reminder of how the stage will always be where the drama of life unfolds. The music was a boon and definitely helped create the real moments of what it’s like for those who live a life in theatre.
Stephen Sondheim has left many of the world’s theatre critics and audience members in awe by the striking riffs and melodic refrains that his glorious music portrays. Michael Arden, did an astounding job directing the performance. The way the story “Merrily We Roll Along” plays among real life is exceptionally brilliant, especially in review. The audience can relate to the journey through life this musical presents and reminds us that sometimes in life, no matter what we’ve experienced, it may be in our best interest to learn how to merrily roll along…
Merrily We Roll Along
The Wallis Annenberg’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Merrily We Roll Along is a beautiful adventure through a person’s life. Unlike a typical play that moves in chronological order, Merrily We Roll Along is unique in its backwards story telling. Though the script tends to confuse some audiences with its flipped narrative, director Michael Arden has no issue making a compelling and true theatrical display. Using mirrors the actors have created an insane illusion that can only be described as magical. From the beginning the stage is set as a dressing room and if you pay close attention you can see cast members waiting on the side or getting ready for the next scene. Though this may be a clever way to keep the same set throughout the show it can be quite distracting to see people moving around in the background. The entire cast does an amazing job of portraying each character. Wayne Brady and Aaron Lazar both feel like real people who the audience can relate to. Through their friendship and arguments they truly carry the show.
The music numbers are phenomenal; the fantastic score by Stephen Sondheim makes this an outstanding performance. The play defiantly portrays growing up in a harsh way and will hopefully resonate with younger audience members and perhaps change their views on their future. By the end of this musical you can’t help but shed a tear for the boy so optimistic on what’s to come.
If I were to describe The Wallis Annenberg’s production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in one word, it would be inspiring. The director, Michael Arden, pushes the envelope of theatre. Arden’s guiding philosophy for casting and staging this production, seems to have been “less is more.” Arden’s bold directorial choices made for a very effective piece of storytelling.
The entire cast did an excellent job of bringing the characters of Sondheim’s show to life, particularly the role of Charlie, played by Wayne Brady. Brady’s dedication and commitment to the role of Charlie was evident through his outstanding performance. Brady’s vibrant facial expressions, strong body language, and robust vocals showcased his storytelling capabilities. It was clear that Brady’s performance not only invigorated his cast mates, but it inspired the audience as well. Along with Brady, another standout performance would be Saycon Sengbloh portrayal of Gussie. With her powerful vocals and her fiery magnetism, Sengbloh actively propelled Sondheim’s story forward. It was her performance that convinced the audience we were truly going back in time. Her ability to convey the story through different moments in time was delightful to watch. Along with Wayne and Last, the entire cast as an ensemble did an excellent job of creating unity for the piece. It was unique because no actor ever left the stage. Each actor did an excellent job by telling the story, without detracting from the main plot points. The ensemble did an exceptional job with their vocals, choreography and their numerous set transitions.
In addition, the high caliber acting was accompanied with amazing technical aspects as well. Arden made a distinct artistic choice to have an abstract set, which was one of the most striking visual elements of the play. Arden chose to not have one piece of architecture stay on stage for the entire performance. The set pieces were moved very quickly, so nothing stayed in one place for a long period of time. The décor was in pieces and Arden left it to the audience to fill in the rest with their imagination. Perhaps this was because the main character, Charlie, was falling to pieces, so the play went back in time to piece together how he lost sight of himself. In addition to a minimalistic set, the use of lights and sound were very effective because they correlated with the set because they were abstract. The lights created a variety of rooms and many different atmospheres. The lights helped guide the audience’s attention to what was happening on stage, boldly and beautifully. The sound of the live orchestra also beautifully correlated with the abstract lighting and set design, making the production completely unified.
The Wallis Annenberg’s production of Merrily We Roll Along was electrifying and one-of-a-kind. With a brilliant cast, breathtaking technical effects and Arden’s artistic vision, the production beautifully encompassed what great theatre has to offer. It was more than just a performance; it was an experience.
Each retracting decade required a unique lighting scheme to set the stage for the time period, and Travis Hagenbuch provided the performance with just that. The warm colors throughout the first act characterized the vibrant 70s, while the cool greens and blues of the second act depicted the tone of war, presidential assassination, and the popularization of marijuana into an already rebellious 60s society.
Dane Laffrey’s costume design not only reflected the era, but it also added to each actor’s character, expressing distinctive personalities. Noticeable throughout the play is Laffrey’s dedication to detail, such as each performer’s hairstyle. She chose to give Gussie Carnegie, who played the seductive role of the main actor’s mistress, an afro to portray the wild style of the late 1970s, which gradually straightened to a sleek lob that signified the laid back vibes of the early 1960s.
Arden’s remake Merrily We Roll Along featured a stage cluttered with mirrors, which some spectators may argue a reflective distraction and a challenge thrown at the lighting crew. However, other onlookers interpret the mirrors as a meaningful prop, symbolizing Franklin Shepard’s – the main character – reflection on his past.
Including dance choreography and songs from Sondheim’s score, Arden’s Merrily We Roll Along is surely a triple threat that no one will forget. The diverse twenty-member cast flooded the stage with a pool of talent, embracing actors, singers, and dancers of all ages. Lead actors Aaron Lazar, Wayne Brady, and Donna Viving captured the exclusive bond of friendship, and also the sacrifices it entails. Brady especially stood out with his performance of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which required the memorization of fast paced, intricate hand movements, as well as abnormal sound effects. His flawless performance entertained the audience with an aspect of humor as well as anguish resulting from the corruption of success, leading to the loss of a deep-rooted friendship.