The heartbreaking beauty of Stephen Sondheim's moving "Merrily We Roll Along" inevitably comes in its final moments.
Director Connor Mickiewicz's lively musical spills over with wrenching irony (not nearly the same as being ironic), stemming from its reverse chronology, and as we see the central characters youthfully perched on the verge of their lives, we can't help but reflect on the future we've already seen awaiting them.
In New Helvetia Theatre's ambitious new production, with an animated cast led by the sparkling Matthew Schneider as Franklin Shepard, gallop through Sondheim's wonderfully varied score.
Jouni Kirjola quietly makes his own splash as he effectively matches Schneider's aggressive Franklin with a moody, shaded Charley Kringas. Charley holds forth as the honest, sensitive playwright and lyricist who hooks up with Franklin's brass-ring-grabbing composer and continually tries keeping the artistic partnership on track. Lauren Parker's caustic Mary Flynn completes the show's lead trio, adding a vibrant vocal quality to the show.
"Merrily" has always had a troubled production history, including lasting only 16 performances in its 1981 Broadway debut. Sondheim's terrific music and songs were never considered the problem. (A first-rate stage band, led by Chris Schlagel, supports the vocalists here.)
The oversimplified story takes the blame as George Furth's book, based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, suggests that money and success are the root of all evil. Franklin continually sells himself and Charley out for one more big payday. The promised return to the meaningful music they once passionately believed in never happens.
Solid contributions come from Courtney Glass and Tristan Rumery as a brassy manipulative actress and her blithely supportive producer husband. Kiera Anderson also makes a game stand as Franklin's long-suffering wife, Beth.
Naturally, the seldom-seen and seldom-heard (at least around these parts) Sondheim gems such as the complexly layered "Old Friends" make this production worth seeing and hearing. Kirjola nearly comically implodes with anger in "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and Anderson beautifully lands the ballad "Not a Day Goes By."
Because this cautionary tale of the compromises we make in life starts at its bitter ending and rewinds to the hopeful beginning, the intended effect is a bittersweet chill. Because we end at the beginning there's a sense that perhaps it doesn't have to be that way, which gives this strongly performed production a rarely felt tension at its end.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
3 1/2 stars
What: The New Helvetia Theatre presents Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." The bittersweet story traces in reverse the lives of three friends who, at the beginning, are jaded and cynical as a result of their life experiences, and moves back in time and, by the end, the friends become bright, enthusiastic idealists on the verge of their careers.
Where: The 24th Street Theater, at the Sierra 2 Center,
2791 24th St., Sacramento
When: Continuing at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays through April 21. Also 7 p.m. this Sunday
Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Information: (916) 469-9850, www.newhelvetia.org