The First Year Players’ performance of “Merrily We Roll Along” took the audience on a moving, emotional journey back in time through the life of the show’s protagonist, Frank Shepard, before culminating in an excellent finale.
“Merrily,” a Stephen Sondheim musical, begins at the height of Shepard’s successful career as a composer. Despite his fame and wealth, Shepard (Drew McCarter) is unhappy with his life, and the show moves in reverse through his experiences — the audience sees scenes showing how Shepard lost the support of his closest friends, playwright Charley Kringas (Jack Gereski) and theatre critic Mary Flynn (Caroline West).
McCarter, in the lead role, had a solid performance, developing his character well to demonstrate the changes in his life. In the opening scene, he exuded confidence and quickly became the center of attention as a famous Hollywood movie director. As the clocks turn back, he returns to his roots as a hopeful lyricist, submitting pieces to small-time New York directors.
Gereski’s work alongside McCarter writing plays to go with his music, is similarly shown in the nuances of his character’s development. He changed from Gereski’s bitter, sarcastic rival to his witty counterpart. More remarkable, however, was his excellent comedic timing in the fast-paced, hilarious song “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” in which he airs all his grievances against his friend on live TV to the audience’s delight. Throughout the show, his sharp humor kept the audience entertained and injected an infectious energy into his scenes.
Contributing to the group’s onstage chemistry and holding them all together through thick and thin was West, a successful writer and their old friend. Working well alongside the other two leads in numbers such as “Old Friends”, West convincingly played the role of peacekeeper through their incessant conflicts. Her performance was also boosted by a good singing performance, especially in “Now You Know.”
The supporting cast also included notable performances that helped drive the show along even when it occasionally lagged in pace and energy. Gussie Carnegie (Kat Gravely), Shepard’s mistress, embodied the self-centered, insincere Hollywood culture that drew Shepard in. Beth Spencer (Beth Cashin), Shepard’s ex-wife, had some of the most impressive vocal performances of the production in “Not a Day Goes By,” “It’s a Hit” and other songs.
All of these wonderful individual performances, supported by a good ensemble, came together to show the audience the meaningful story of a life shaped by all the small things that one rarely stops to consider. Although it was clear from the start that Shepard’s life had taken a turn for the worse, going backwards through time to the hopeful beginnings of his career allowed the show to end on an uplifting, somehow nostalgic note, leaving the audience satisfied. The message was pensive and poignant — should people simply merrily roll along, or should they stop and ask, “How did we get to be here?”