Club Review: Ann Morrison’s “Merrily from Center Stage”

August 28, 2022 | By

Anyone who has seen the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened might understandably assume that there was no need to get further insight into the famed failure that was Merrily We Roll Along. Anyone who has seen an autobiographical cabaret show by a Broadway performer might understandably assume that a show by one of its stars would include the performer’s numbers from that show, perhaps with other Stephen Sondheim songs and a variety of material from their other shows, punctuated with memory-filled patter. In both instances, and in so many other ways, Ann Morrison’s Merrily from Center Stage, presented at 54 Below, defies expectations.  

Ann Morrison

When I saw Merrily in its first run (once in previews, once in its painfully short post-opening life), the two things I treasured from the experience were Sondheim’s brilliant score and Morrison’s funny, touching, heartbreaking performance. In describing the life and death of a major Broadway production intertwined with stories of the onstage, backstage, and offstage lives of its young cast, its famous creators, and her own personal travails and triumphs, the actress achieves the humor, the power, and the heart of a one-woman show that might well be even more impressive in a theatre than it is on a cabaret stage.  This is a one-character play, and storytelling on a remarkably high level.  Beautifully sung bits of the songs serve as a swirling, fleeting soundtrack to her story, ingeniously chosen to amplify, underscore, or contrast the details of the narrative and the lives, the relationships, the highs, and the lows, of those connected to it. On occasion some of Sondheim’s words are tweaked to be more on point, but each song from the show is represented in some form, wonderfully arranged and played by pianist John Shirley.

This show, like the original, opens with “Hills of Tomorrow,” but in place of the anthem it once was, it becomes an understated prayer of hope and trust in the future, with a bittersweet, tentative undertone. One of Sondheim’s most infectious creations, “Merrily We Roll Along” plays a similar role here to the one it played on Broadway, highlighting the passage of years in its recurring presence. “Rich and Happy” introduces the direct parallels between the character of Mary and Morrison, parallels that deepen in surprising ways as the story unfolds.  “Charley” becomes an out and out parody, but while it is often hazardous to attempt rewrites of the master, in this case it works amazingly well. “Franklin Shepard Inc” wears its gender change from Charley to Mary with enthusiastic joy. The joy blossoms into a loving arrangement of “Old Friends.” Morrison proves the adage that a good actor could make reading the telephone book riveting; she picks up a copy of the original Playbill from the piano and simply by reading a list of the chorus names, she enshrines each one in a thoughtful glow of feeling and memory, and moment by moment the accumulation of emotion is overwhelming.  Just names…just magic! 

Recounting that the song “Now You Know” was written with her in mind and is her very own Sondheim song, she allows it to become the main theme of the evening.  It is a tribute to both the composer and the actress that the lyrics most closely mirror the woman we have been listening to all night. The wise yet acerbic wit, pain, and acceptance bring her memories of the experience to electrifying life.  Her abbreviated performance of her “hit” from the show, “Not a Day Goes By,” is a dramatic recreation of the number as it was done originally but at the same time, as we hear Mary exclaiming her love for Frank, we also get a glimpse of Morrison’s complex feelings for the experience of Merrily itself.  The multiple voices of “Opening Doors” are all delivered by the actress and it is a tour de force.  Presenting the song almost in its entirety gives it the emotional and dramatic heft of a true eleven o’clock number.  Again mirroring the Sondheim show, she ends with the glorious “Our Time,” but its clear message of hope is colored by the story we have been told and the richer for it. 

Through her masterful performance, we get insight into Merrily We Roll Along in more fascinating, interesting, personal ways than any book or film has given us. It is simply, yet perfectly, staged; every move is designed to highlight whatever point she wants to make.  There is no director listed, so I assume that Morrison is responsible for the ingenious, captivating movement and flow of the show. Her voice, while changed a bit by the years, is as expressive and unforgettable as it was on stage at the Alvin Theatre in 1981. And her acting, as I’ve indicated, is extraordinary. Merrily from Center Stage is a rich, layered, dramatically and emotionally satisfying triumph.

As a proviso, I must say that the show requires some knowledge of and familiarity with Merrily We Roll Along to be fully appreciated, but this is clearly a show for fans, and I wouldn’t change a thing.  Well, there is one thing – she wears green silk pajamas and a white silk robe, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. It is a distraction here and there, albeit a minor one.

*** 

Presented at 54 Below on May 17, August 19 and 20, 2022.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

Comments (1)

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  1. Ann Morrison says:

    Thank you, Gerry, for this most beautiful review. When I created the show I thought it would be a one-night-only thing. But its popularity has me putting it back into a workshop to give it some breath and expansion I couldn’t at 54 Below because the show had to be 75 minutes long. I am peppering it with a bit more setup for non-MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG folk to help navigate this experience and it is a fine line to not mess with the integrity of the arch. There are producers interested in putting this show in a small theatre and a film company wanted to film it as this is called “Living History”. I hope you will see the expanded version one day. Jonathan Groff was in the audience in August ( as you know he is playing Frank Shepard at NYTW this December and he went gaga wanting me to do it for their company. Who knows.
    As to the pajamas, it is my signature these days to do Cabaret in pajamas because they are comfortable I would never wear them to bed they are so nice and it invokes “storytelling time”. I hope an audience will take the cue and settle into a moment in time where they can allow themselves to be the audience free of stuffy surroundings and let the storyteller take them on an adventure. I teach cabaret development and I ask the solo artist to please not say “This song was written by…” don’t be lazy. Give us more to see, and tell your story. Will I continue in pajamas as I move this show away from a cabaret room, hmmmmm. Not sure yet. hahahahahahaaaa! Thank you again , Gerry and I hope to take you on other journey’s as I Merrily Roll Along!