Vagabond rolls along merrily

November 16, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Shakespeare had his problem plays, and Stephen Sondheim has his problem musicals. High on Sondheim's list is "Merrily We Roll Along," a 1981 collaboration with George Furth that closed after 16 performances on Broadway.

The musical's chief difficulty is the unconventional structure of its plot. Based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same name, the action moves backward in time, beginning with the jaded disillusionment of a trio of friends and ending with the hopes and dreams they had expressed two decades earlier.

An equally thorny dilemma has been finding an appropriate physical concept -- something that can cover the time span without being painstakingly literal. At the Vagabond Players, director Todd Pearthree has come up with a highly workable concept. It's so simple and straightforward, it's surprising it hasn't surfaced in the show's many other incarnations.

The first thing you see on stage is the cover of a giant board game called "Merrily We Roll Along: the game that goes backwards." The scenery includes three giant dice that serve, at various times, as chairs, typewriter stands and even a piano. Most clever of all are the large game cards placed in frames on the sides of the stage before each scene. One card gives the time and place, i.e., "Manhattan Courthouse, NYC 1967"; the other gives instructions for the next move, commenting on the action in the process, i.e., "Lose a Turn."

Pearthree has made it difficult to get confused. But he hasn't solved all of the musical's problems. His bright, cheery production, as well as one of the lead performances, over-compensate for the show's harsh tone.

The musical's three protagonists are a Broadway composer, his lyricist partner and a novelist. The composer, who sells out to become a movie producer, has been hampered by extreme unlikability. At the Vagabonds, however, he is played by Billy Burke, a performer a bit too amiable for this hard-edged role. Burke is even more appealing than Shawn Doyle, who, as the level-headed lyricist/playwright, should serve as the composer's foil. Fortunately, there's no danger of excess likability with Liz Boyer, who gives a fine, uncompromising performance as the cynical novelist, who tries to drown her bitterness in alcohol.

The show's strong score is one of the main reasons it survived its disastrous debut. And though the choreography Pearthree has created for this music is less inspired than his direction and overall concept, he has found singers who do justice to such memorable numbers as "Not A Day Goes By" and the plaintive pairing of "Old Friends" and "Like It Was."

In 1990, Arena Stage in Washington did a version of this show revised by Sondheim and Furth. That production was introduced by a flashback -- an effective way to set up the reverse chronology. But Pearthree's board-game device is less textually contrived and has the added virtue of being especially fitting for Sondheim, a devotee of games who used to create crossword puzzles for New York magazine. So, score a win for the Vagabonds' "Merrily."

'Merrily We Roll Along'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 17

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 563-9135

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