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‘Merrily We Roll Along’ soars to new heights in Porchlight staging

Jim DeSelm (from left), Neala Barron and Matt Crowle star in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." | Michael Courier

If you plan to see just one musical this winter — and you are fearless enough to face up to the truth about the nature of success and failure, youth and age, love and resentment, loyalty and betrayal, and change of every kind — “Merrily We Roll Along” is the one to choose. It is for adults. And in many ways it is without parallel.

In addition to its great bones, the Porchlight Music Theatre’s intimate but grand-scale production of the show is infused with fierce, precision-tooled, altogether-transformative direction by Michael Weber.

And it features a slew of deeply insightful performances that reveal previously unexplored layers of this reverse-time story that begins in the mid-1980s and moves back to the late 1950s, when a group of aspiring young artists first feel the crucial spark of divine fire.

Highly recommended
When: Through March 11
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $33-$60
Info: www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the genius behind this show is composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And George Furth’s caustic yet emotion-driven book (based on an earlier play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) is in perfect synch with Sondheim’s virtuosic score.

“Merrily,” like many made-for-Broadway musicals, is a show business story, but what sets it apart is that it is not so much larger-than-life as it is brilliantly and painfully true to life. Unsparing in its chronicle of friendships, careers, marriages and divorces, it captures the nature of those who sell-out, those who remain purists (and sometimes left behind), those who know how to work the system and those are destroyed by it. Alternately poignant and bitterly satirical, it spares no one and captures the heartache and ambivalence in everyone.

The cast of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical now being staged by Porchlight Music Theatre. | Michael Courier

At the center of the show, which unspools in New York and Los Angeles, are three friends who meet while still students at Juilliard and Columbia University. But we first meet Franklin Shepard (Jim DeSelm) when he is an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life and career — a composer who starts in the theater but makes his fortune as a schlock producer in Hollywood, and along the way has two failed marriages, a son, and all that money can buy. His early creative partner and friend, Charley Kringas (Matt Crowle), is a brilliant lyricist with a heart of gold and impeccable standards — nerdy where Franklin is handsome and confident, devoted to his family, and ethical in every way. Watching these two — while endlessly pining for Franklin — is Mary Flynn (Neala Barron), a super-smart writer and editor with one book to her credit, who drowns her sorrows in alcohol.

Not surprisingly, along the way this trio’s friendship is sorely tested and often frayed to the breaking point. But both the beauty and sadness of it all is how the musical carries us back to that golden moment when they sensed each others’ talent, worked countless day jobs, and scrambled for the kind of recognition that can sometimes catapult a career while also wrecking one’s character. It is not that being a penniless dreamer in the name of art is anyone’s goal. But one look at the craven nature of the “movers and shakers” at a Hollywood party where more mature versions of the three friends are reunited suggests what can be lost along the way.

The triumverate of ideally cast leading actors is uniformly superb in the way they so meticulously capture the passage of time (in reverse) through subtle internal shifts that are far more crucial than archival projections (by Anthony Churchill) or costumes (by Bill Morey). DeSelm is ideal as the man continually distracted by women, including Beth (a strong turn by Aja Wiltshire), his first wife, and Gussie Carnegie (the wonderfully vampish Keely Vasquez), the Broadway star with the instincts of a cougar who destroys his marriage, as well as her own to an adoring Broadway producer, Joe (David Fiorello is superb).

The ever-remarkable Crowle knocks it out of the park with a bravura performance of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a song whose technical challenges are the stuff of actors’ nightmares, and his every gesture (including putting a party sandwich in his jacket pocket) is priceless.

As for Barron, whose acting chops match her formidable voice, she never fails to demonstrate pure fearlessness.

One final note: Be prepared to cry.

Keely Vasquez (standing, from left), Neala Barron and Jim De Selm in “Merrily We Roll Along.” (| Michael Courier