At a glamorous party, best-selling novelist Mary Flynn gets sloshed and renounces her longtime friendship with the host, composer Franklin Shepard. The two, along with mutual friend Charley, who's not at the party, supported each other long before they became successful. This disastrous night leads to an examination of how fame can destroy people in Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre's production of Merrily We Roll Along.
Directed by Tom Cianfichi, the musical tells the friends' story in reverse-chronological order — starting at the end and examining how the characters got there. Franklin (Richard Arnold) is a talented composer who's driven by the bright lights of fame, and this focus puts him at odds with his friend and collaborator Charley (Kevin Murphy). Franklin is self-obsessed, but Arnold's performance makes him sympathetic. It's not clear if he is driven by vanity or a more basic, humanizing desire for validation. Vis-a-vis Franklin's smooth-talking persona, Charley is a goofy, mad genius. Murphy has expert timing, evident in a head-spinning song during a scene featuring a televised meltdown.
Mary (Leslie Castay) is secretly in love with Franklin, who leaves his first wife, Beth (April Lynn Nelson), for the Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Wendy Miklovic). Though it seems that Beth is part of the story only to show Franklin's fall from grace, Nelson has one of the strongest voices in the cast and is magnetic on stage. Miklovic is dynamite when she seduces Franklin, but she could have pushed the aging starlet's complexity in other scenes.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the songs are memorable enough to sing on the trip home after the show. The story is heartbreaking, but there's hope along the way. The reverse structure — along with the music — softens the themes of betrayal and regret. The flashbacks also allow for many fun period-inspired costumes, which were designed by Julie Winn. Evan Adamson's elaborate set changes also add to the energy of the production.
Along with its critique of fame, the show offers meta-commentary on the theater world. This leads to a standout scene in which the three principal characters perform a fun and extremely witty number from one of Charley and Franklin's shows. Franklin and Charley have a strong bond, but ultimately Mary tries to keep everyone together. At the show's start, she seems the most broken, and Castay plays her with control and nuance that make her arc the most satisfying to watch — and it's also the least predictable path.
This top-notch production asks us to question the meaning of fame and happiness. Its exploration of relationships can be bleak, but the musical successfully shows the dark side of success while championing the importance of friendship.