The opening scene of this musical took the audience to a party held in Frank Shepard’s honor. All the “movers and shakers” of Bel Air arrived to pay tribute to this towering titan of Tinseltown. As well they should have. While starting out as a small-time writer of musical scores, he’d achieved dizzying heights of prominence as a Hollywood movie producer. Everyone loved Frank; well, everyone except his ex-wife, his estranged writing partner and his life-long friend whom he drove to a life of alcoholism. For that matter, his ex-wife didn’t care for him, his current wife suspected him of infidelity, and potential wife number three had been attacked by wife number two. Merrily we roll along.
This annual installment of the Burlington County Footlighters Intern company served as an outstanding vehicle for these eager thespians. Director Kevin Esmond had a lot to work with here. The show featured numerous roles so that even the secondary characters had an opportunity to display their skills. I’d especially give kudos to Mack Massey. He turned in a convincing performance playing a nine year old child.
The show featured an unusual time sequence. It began in 1976 and ended after Sputnik’s launch. Each act progressed backwards in time. We got to witness Frank’s rise to stardom in reverse. It’s difficult to keep an audience engaged with that structure. After all, they already know the ending when the play starts. Then again, in the talented hands of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, I remained interested.
The musical centered on the interlocking lives of three friends. Franklin Shepard (played by Ryan Kiernan) the music writer, Charlie Kringas (Alec Hamilton) the playwright, and Mary Flynn (Daio Floyd) a novelist. The three had exceptional chemistry together. One highlight of the show came when they sang as a trio on the tune, “Old Friends”. While pressed together on a small couch, they had to execute some tricky choreography, also. I didn’t hear any of them go out of key the whole time.
Sondheim likes trios, apparently. Another one featured Mr. Kiernan, Mr. Hamilton, and Sarah Peszka (as Beth) singing “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” in the 1960 scene. This homage to the Kennedy clan included a bit of a traditional Irish dance. It also required the three to rattle-off the names of everyone in the Kennedy family very fast while in unison. (Sondheim likes sixteenth notes, too.) The fact the cast remembered the all the lyrics alone impressed me.I liked Sarah Petrillo’s portrayal of actress Gussie Carnegie. I know you’re thinking: how hard can it be for an actress to play an actress? Let me tell you. The way she kissed the tip of her finger and touched people on the nose showed the mannerisms of an egotist. Ms. Petrillo perfectly nailed the tricky high notes in the song “Good Thing Going”. Her crooning impressed me. The opportunity to hear her sing that one song made the cost of admission worthwhile.
Ryan Kiernan was the true stand out star of this show. I still recall the phenomenal job he did as “Alfie” in A Man of No Importance last year. Based on his talent and skill I have to assume he’s still performing with the BCF Intern Company as a public service to budding thespians. They no doubt benefit from the example he sets. He’s such a strong singer, dancer and actor that he’s ready to move to the next level.
Mr. Kiernan showed impressive range as a singer. I already mentioned how well he delivered the staccato barrage of names in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”. He—accompanied by Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Floyd—performed the slower number “Our Time” very movingly to close out the show. I liked his annoyed facial expressions while Mr. Hamilton performed the “Franklin Shepard Inc.” number. His character didn’t have a lot of dancing sequences, but he made the few he had memorable.
In the heart-rending scene where he and Ms. Peszka met during their divorce hearing, he expressed remorse and anger over the dissolution of his family. For a young guy he showed key mannerisms of a devoted father. I liked the way he grabbed Frank Jr. (played by Mack Massey) under his arm pits and swung him around in an earlier scene.
I have one criticism of the show: it doesn’t run very long. It began on August 5th and runs through August 8th. These actors did an exceptional job. They deserve more opportunities to practice their craft in front of a live audience. I’ve watched the BCF Intern Company show two years in a row. Due to the quality of the cast and crew’s professionalism, I didn’t think of either as a pageant for “friends and family”. General audiences would enjoy them.
The wittiest line in Merrily We Roll Along came from Frank Shepard. He observed, “the worst kind of vice is advice.” I’d suggest people ignore that, at least through my next sentence. See the show while you still can.