By Matt Penridge February 23rd, 2018
FERNDALE, Mich. -Good-ass singing is the special something that makes the Ringwald’s production of Merrily We Roll Along a unique and enjoyable experience. The theater’s intimate quarters are used well to create that sort of fly-on-the-wall experience unique to the space. Actors enter and exit through the audience at times, a device that director Joe Bailey (a veteran on the scene) uses expertly, appropriately, and never in excess.
Merrily We Roll Along has an interesting production history, which you can read about elsewhere on the internet, for instance, I found this on Wikipedia:
“Merrily We Roll Along is a musical with a book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. It is based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.”
Cool! But you don’t need to know any of that in order to enjoy this show, I mean heck, I didn’t.
Oh wait, there is one thing you should know. Chronologically speaking, it is a backwards play. Perhaps I should have realized that sooner considering “how did you get to be here, what was the moment?” was repeated several times during the intricate and energetic opening number. Then again, so was “never look back,” so mixed signals.
So yeah, the first scene, which takes place in 1976, is actually the last. The second scene takes place a few years before the first, and the third scene a few years before the second… and so on and so forth, until it has worked its way back 20 years to the origin of the story.
The plot itself is pretty basic. The protagonist, Franklin Shepard (Kyle Johnson), is a brilliant musical composer turned producer, living in Los Angeles. The first scene is set at a party in his LA home, where he is surrounded by a bunch of people who all think he is the best dude ever. They even sing a song about how cool he is, which is called “That Frank”, and is pulled off quite well by the cast.
I should mention again, there is some good-ass singing in this production. And the songs involve some complicated melodies (and other parts of songs). The cast, along with the musical director, CT Hollis, deserves a ton of credit for what I can only assume was a challenging rehearsal process. The choreography by Molly Zaleski was also fantastic.
Anyway, Franklin’s dear friend Mary Flynn (Ashlee Armstrong) is very drunk and very skeptical of his crew, which is referred to as “the blob”. His famous actress girlfriend, Gussie (Liz Schultz), is super mad at him, because as he admits later in the scene, he’s been fooling around with a rising star (Anna Morreale).
The opening scene is 20 years in the making, however unbeknownst to the audience that fact may be. But hey, it’s how the play is written so what are you going to do? In the second scene we are introduced to lyricist Charley Kringas (Kevin Kaminski), Franklin’s former musical partner slash best friend. He was the typewriter, Franklin was the piano. It was beautiful, we assume, but remember we’re going in reverse. But yeah, spoiler alert, it was beautiful, and that’s ok that you know that.
The bulk of the show falls on Kyle Johnson’s (Franklin) shoulders, and he handles it admirably. His nuanced portrayal of Franklin seems to be what the script called for. And he has the voice of a meadowlark, which I don’t totally know what that means, but I’m trying to say I really enjoyed his singing.
Johnson’s counterparts also delivered wonderful performances. Armstrong (Mary) is saddled with the biggest emotional arc, and navigates it well, providing much of the comic relief. She especially shines when Mary’s harsh facade recedes as the play goes on [backwards in time]. She too has the voice of a wonderful bird so awesome it probably only exists in the mind of an imaginative child.
Kaminski (Charley) as the nebish friend works very well. The emotions of his character come through in a cool subtle-but-obvious kind of way. And for real, he has the voice of one of those dope tropical birds that sings good, and is probably very expensive to purchase.
The main cast is rounded out by Schultz (Gussie), Brandy Joe Plambeck (Joe, Gussie’s husband), and Jordan Gagnon (Beth, Franklin’s wife), all of whom turned in excellent performances. Shultz was especially effective at straddling the line of “oh I hate her” and “wait, do I feel bad for this person?” Gagnon was superb as the only character that remained sympathetic throughout the entire play. As Beth, she was not naive, she simply wanted a husband she could trust, and unfortunately that wasn’t Franklin. Shchultz and Gagnon have dazzling voices, while Plambeck’s is good, and exactly what it needs to be for this show.
The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Riedel and Matthew Wallace) work very well together as the chorus, and as individuals when given the opportunity to shine. At one point Riedel, playing a rabbi, dons the the largest yarmulke I have ever seen, and pulls it off with true chutzpah.
I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed the musical numbers, and how gnarly the singing was, so I would be a total ass if I forgot to throw some mad props to Ben Villaluz, who provided the lone musical accompaniment on the piano. Live music always makes everything better, especially when the musician is as talented as Villaluz.
Let’s talk transitions, baby! If you like a tight transish, and you should, then this show is for you! The transitions in Merrily stand alone as well-executed and enjoyable productions. Whether the focus is on a video projection designed by Dyan Bailey, or a musical number, there is a never a lull in the action. Kudos to the director and assistant director (Gretchen Schock)!
The costume design by Vince Kelley provided a necessary splash of era-appropriate aesthetic. The set design was simple, but scenic designer Brian K. Kessler provided enough context to make it work. And let’s not forget the gracious and hard-working stage manager, Kaitlin Sarnacki, who was impeccable.
Bottom line, the cast and crew make the most out of a play that as written, is… fine. The musical numbers are a delight, and a reminder that Detroit is full of talented people, so go ahead and support them!
Tickets can be purchased at www.TheRingwald.com or at the theatre box office. The Ringwald box office opens 45 minutes before performances and tickets can be purchased with cash or credit card. The Ringwald Theatre is located at 22742 Woodward Avenue in the Times Square of downtown Ferndale.