'Merrily' is a masterpiece. Melted 'Icebergs'

merrily84a-ds.jpgSaycon Sengbloh and Aaron Lazar in "Merrily We Roll Along" at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Two major productions in LA right now more or less begin with scenes set in LA - which is so unusual on our larger stages that I'm happy to salute any effort to examine our own community, no matter how tentative.

But both productions also lose points on the Observing-LA meter because they focus on fictional movie makers. "Hollywood" (in the larger sense, not the geographical area) is the boilerplate subject for too many plays set in Los Angeles, further reinforcing the international cliche that LA is first and foremost about "the business." Let's have more plays about LA teachers and politicians and mechanics and Airbnb hosts.

Anyway, after those initial scenes, the two productions head in diametrically different directions. First let's discuss the masterpiece, "Merrily We Roll Along," at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
Masterpiece? Isn't this the famously "troubled" musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth? Well, it received that reputation in its premiere production, which consisted of only 12 performances following previews, way back in 1981 on Broadway. Like most Sondheim fans and other theatergoers, I didn't see that production, although I certainly enjoyed seeing the new documentary about it and some of its actors, "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened," playing at three Laemmle cinemas this weekend.

Instead, my "Merrily" experiences began in 1985, when I saw it at La Jolla Playhouse, in the rendition which Sondheim himself later described as "the turning point" in the show's evolution into the musical its creators intended. I've seen seven other productions since then.

merrily-neon.jpg"Merrily" has never seemed "troubled" to me -- "troubling," perhaps, but not "troubled." Despite the ups and downs of those eight productions, I can't recall ever exiting a performance of "Merrily" without at least a slight lump in the throat and a misty sensation in my eyes. Although it pops with Sondheim's usual lyrical wit and intelligence, it's also one of the most durably poignant productions in the entire canon of musicals.

Until now, however, "Merrily" had never received a Broadway-caliber production in Los Angeles County. Locally, I've seen an East West Players version, three 99-seat-plan revivals and one concert reading, but none of these came close to the depth and delicacy of the Wallis production, staged by Michael Arden.

Arden is the same magician who directed Deaf West Theatre's "Spring Awakening," taking it from a small space near LA's Skid Row to the Wallis to Broadway in little more than a year, in 2014-15. I don't know if this "Merrily" will also roll along to Broadway
But I'm more interested in the fact that this "Merrily" skipped an initial LA small-theater production, unlike its Arden-staged predecessor. It might be harder for big musical productions to start small, in the sub-100-seat tier, after Actors' Equity's new minimum-wage rules go into effect Thursday (if they do go into effect, but that's another story). In this context, it's reassuring to know that the Wallis was willing to hatch this "Merrily" without a small-theater tryout, using its greater resources as well as its more professional contracts than those that are found on the 99-seat level.

The upscale launch of this production is a little ironic. "Merrily" is the story of three friends. In their early 20s, they're struggling to pay the bills, but they're full of hope and ambition. The two men write songs and plays (ergo musicals), while the young woman is entering journalism at the ground floor.

The two young men, in other words, are late '50s/early '60s New York versions of the young artists who contribute so much of their time and talent to LA's small theaters. Sure, some gifted actors and writers continue to work in LA's 99-seat scene as they grow older, but many of their maturing colleagues either can't afford the meager compensation or, in some cases, burn out.

In the case of these two "Merrily" characters, the two men achieve high-profile success as they grow older, but they also become bitterly divided over their goals. Franklin Shepard becomes the Hollywood producer we see in that aforementioned scene, abandoning his music, while Charley Kringas stays in New York and wins a Pulitzer for one of his plays. (Their friend Mary Flynn crosses over to becoming a, wince, theater critic).

Some observers apparently have trouble with "Merrily" because the story is told backwards, beginning with the midlife stress when the characters are none too sympathetic and ending with their youthful harmony. This certainly isn't the conventional route -- most of the great showbiz musicals have gone in the opposite direction ("Gypsy," "Dreamgirls").

But as we recall our own personal pasts, we often start in the present and move backwards, wondering what brought us to the current moment. Using this device on a stage shouldn't seem radical or confusing. The growing contrast between the messy strife of early midlife and the uncharted path of young adulthood creates a bittersweet buzz, which stays with us as we leave the theater.

Arden's production achieves some of its special glow from three younger actors who play shadow versions of the older actors. For most of the show, they're primarily a choreographic effect, but at the end (which is to say, the beginning of the characters' mutual acquaintance), they assume center stage. These roles are cast not only with very limber younger actors but with shorter actors, almost as if they're literally still growing up.

The production is beautifully designed to emphasize the panorama of shifting memories and to diminish any sense of naturalism. The lighting by Travis Hagenbuch is especially evocative. The casting is 21st-century-diverse. African-Americans play Charley (Wayne Brady) and Gussie (Saycon Sengbloh), the Broadway diva who becomes the second wife of Franklin (Aaron Lazar). Whitney Bashor plays the first wife ("Not a Day Goes By"), and Donna Vivino plays Mary, who once also carried a torch for Franklin
From the depictions of Franklin and Gussie, some people might jump to the conclusion that Sondheim and Furth were saying that art in Hollywood or in Broadway musicals is likely - if not certain -- to be corrupted and corrupting, presumably compared to the purity of Charley's undetailed Pulitzer-winning play. Yet Sondheim's mentor was the Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein II. And consider what Sondheim wrote in his book "Finishing the Hat."

He recalled that as a young man, he wrote "a four-hour summation of my views on life, ambition, morality, theater and art" called "Climb High" which he hoped to take to Broadway but which "fortunately I had to abandon" because he got a chance to write for the "Topper" TV series - in Hollywood.

Before he was famous, he also wrote a musical for hire, "Saturday Night," mostly in LA at the home of its producer and designer Lemuel Ayers, whose unexpected death at age 40 derailed the project's expected journey to Broadway. However, two years later Sondheim was a lyricist for "West Side Story." Most of the subsequent shows by the greatest musical-theater innovator of "our time" (to borrow one of the song titles from "Merrily") were produced primarily in the commercial sphere.

Perhaps his own experience in the big leagues helped Sondheim endow Franklin with some lingering sympathy, despite the character's many flaws. The show is a much more dimensional creation than it would be if Sondheim's sympathies were entirely with Charley and Mary.

I was glad to see "Merrily" in its earlier LA productions, even when they seemed cramped and impecunious. But those who know it only from those smaller-scaled revivals, or not at all, should make sure they see it in all its glory.

The current play at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, Alena Smith's "Icebergs," also begins in LA, at the Silver Lake home of an up-and-coming movie director. And it shares a plot twist with "Merrily We Roll Along." In each story, the filmmaker feels conflicted about not having cast his wife in a movie -- either his latest project (in "Merrily") or his next project (in "Icebergs").

"Icebergs," however, hews to realism as much as "Merrily" rejects it. The entire play is set in this one home, over the course of less than one day, presumably in 2016.

Still, Smith has something on her mind in "Icebergs" that's bigger than the one-day, one-set play might indicate. Note the title. This script isn't only about thirtysomethings who are attempting to make art and money and possibly babies in contemporary LA. It's also about how they feel -- or don't feel -- the weight of climate change lingering over their decisions.

The director's next movie is an Arctic adventure story, set in an environment where the ice is melting. His wife, seemingly resigned to yield the movie role that she wanted to someone with a star name. is now an internet addict who can't stop reading and worrying about climate change, But as she and her husband have been trying to have a baby, she wonders whether she should give birth on such an imperiled planet. (By the way, she also rejects the idea of performing in LA theater because "nobody does plays in Los Angeles" - this, from a character in a play that's receiving its premiere in LA.)

icebergs-ds.jpgNate Corddry, Rebecca Henderson, Keith Powell, Jennifer Mudge and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs." Photo: Jeff Lorch Photography.

A trio of supporting characters adds rather self-conscious touches of diversity. The husband's visiting ex-roommate is a black paleontologist from Missouri -- a devoted dad who's nevertheless glad to take a break from paternal duties while he's in LA. The wife's friend is a tarot-reading attorney and a lesbian newlywed who's already considering divorce. The husband's agent adds a touch of crass. The latter two characters in particular feel as if they're comic devices designed to lighten and counteract all that talk about climate change.

In the end, "Icebergs" isn't especially challenging or memorable. The scope and urgency of confronting climate change, especially in the wake of the Trump victory, loom over this little play. Perhaps Stephen Sondheim should tackle climate change in his next musical.

P.S. Near the top of this column, I expressed a desire to see more plays about Airbnb hosts in LA. So I must report that in "Icebergs," we hear (but don't see) that the tarot-playing attorney met her new wife via Airbnb - the former hosted the latter as her first guest. Also, in Deb Hiett's amusing new comedy "The Super Variety Match Bonus Round," at Rogue Machine, a couple is hosting a guest via an unnamed organization that sounds a lot like Airbnb. But "Bonus Round" is set in Texas, not LA.

More by Don Shirley:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed