Sondheim’s “Merrily” At Muhlenberg‏

Merrily We Roll Along‘ takes audiences backwards through a life in the arts

Wistful and innovative, Sondheim musical opens Oct. 28 at Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance

Allentown, Pa. (Oct. 17, 2011) — When “Merrily We Roll Along,” the wistful 1981 musical by Stephen Sondheim, opens Oct. 28 at Muhlenberg College, it will take audiences on a journey through time, as many musicals do. The difference is that “Merrily’s” audiences will be journeying backwards, following a group of artists from the end of their long friendship, at the beginning off the show, to their first moments together, at the show’s end.

Rueful and nostalgic, the show explores the lure of show business and the price of success, says director James Peck, chair of the college’s Theatre & Dance Department. Also, he says, the importance of having a network of friends to remaining grounded and connected to what matters.

“It’s a cautionary tale about how not to screw up your life in the arts,” Peck says. “It’s inspiring and heartbreaking, and it contains some of Sondheim’s most irresistible songs.”

The second production in the department’s 2011-12 mainstage season, “Merrily We Roll Along” plays Oct. 28 through Nov. 6 in the college’s Baker Center for the Arts. Because of the college’s Family Weekend programs, tickets will be scarce for Oct. 28-30.

“Merrily” features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth, Sondheim’s collaborator on the earlier hit musical “Company.” The show’s musical score received rave reviews, and features the Broadway standards “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Our Time.”

The show tells the story of composer and film producer Franklin Shepard and his two closest friends, playwright Charley Kringas, Shepard’s lifelong collaborator, and novelist Mary Flynn. The trio begin their careers full of idealism and ambition–and they find success, but not necessarily fulfillment. The play moves backwards through their personal and professional milestones–starting with a disastrous opening-night party for Shepard’s uninspired new movie, and journeying back to a rooftop at dawn, at the start of a friendship and a career.

“The play is about being a middle-aged person, and the struggles of staying true to your vision,” Peck says. “It’s also about being a very young person, just starting out in the world, with a certain vision of yourself and of the kind of artist you’ll turn out to be.

“I’m in one stage of that journey, and I remember the other,” he says. “And my cast are still very much at the beginning of that journey, looking forward to their careers. And that’s the heartbreak, in a way. Some young artists will of course go on to have splendid careers, and some will be disappointed, but certainly none will have exactly the careers they envision for themselves. That vision can be hard to let go of, and looking back, can be hard to come to terms with.”

Choreographer Jeremy Arnold, a senior dance major at Muhlenberg, says that the play resonates especially strongly for him as a young artist.

“It’s very much about the choices we make in our lives,” Arnold says. “And it’s very applicable to where we are as students. I can identify with the characters as an artist about to start my career.”

Senior Andrew Clark concurs. In his portrayal of Charley Kringas, he says he has found himself thinking about his own decisions, and wondering what effects they might have down the road.

“Every decision we make resonates out like ripples in a pond,” Clark says. “We are shown how things resonate with and affect others without our being aware of it. This show is very sad, but there is an inherent sense of hope in our production because, like our characters at the end, we’re all so young.”

“Merrily’s” backwards-running structure is also reflected in its musical score, according to musical director Ken Butler. Shepard composes a musical theme early in his life that becomes the basis for several later compositions, and Butler says that sharp-eared patrons will hear that theme develop backwards as the play progresses.

“The glory of the reversal is when the audiences has those ‘a-ha’ moments,” Butler says. “It’s a process of excavation, and it’s always a jolt.”

The Sunday, Nov. 6 performance at 2 p.m. will feature Open Captioning for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing and Audio Description for patrons who are blind or visually impaired. Tickets are available at a reduced rate to patrons who require these services. To purchase tickets for OC or AD services at the Nov. 6 performance, contact Jess Bien at boxoffice@muhlenberg.edu or 484-664-3087.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department is the top-rated college performance program in the country, according to the Princeton Review‘s 2012 survey report. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa, offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 6. Opening-weekend performances are: Friday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 29, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.  The second week of performances are Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 2-5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $20; patrons 17 and under, $8; students, faculty and staff of all LVAIC colleges, $7. For groups of 15 or more, tickets are $15. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew Street, Allentown.

Tickets and information: 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre

Pajama Game at Muhlenberg‏

With a full orchestra, no microphones,
and a distinctly 1950s sensibility,
The Pajama Game’ captures the jazzy,
snazzy spirit of Broadway’s Golden Age

Allentown, Pa. (Oct. 15, 2010) — When “The Pajama Game” opens Oct. 29 on Muhlenberg College’s Empie Theatre stage, director Charles Richter wants audiences to feel as though they’ve been transported to the Golden Age of the Broadway musical.

Like the show’s original 1955 production, Muhlenberg’s “The Pajama Game” will feature a full 22-piece orchestra, big voices, and no artificial amplification. Along with musical director Ken Butler and choreographer Karen Dearborn, Richter says he has been coaching the cast to adopt the “sort of spirited style” they will need to make sure their performance reaches the back row.

“This show conveys a wonderful sense of nostalgia,” Richter says. “Our aim is to recreate the experience of the Golden Age musical in a way that few productions really do — that touring companies just can’t accomplish. I want our audiences to be able to understand what made the American musical great.”

The second production in the Muhlenberg Theatre and Dance Department’s 2010-2011 mainstage season, “The Pajama Game” plays Oct. 29 through Nov. 7 in the College’s Baker Center for the Arts. Because of the College’s Family Weekend activities, tickets will be scarce for performances Nov. 5-7.

The score of “The Pajama Game” features the hit songs “Steam Heat,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Hey There,” classics of the Broadway repertoire. The show is heavily jazz-influenced, though it features numbers in a wide variety of styles, from tango to country and western.

“Every song’s a hit,” Richter says. “These are some of the best songs ever written for the stage. The score is extraordinarily rich and robust.”

Based on the novel “7 ½ Cents,” by Richard Bissell, “The Pajama Game” tells the story of love behind the picket lines. Conditions at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory are anything but peaceful, as sparks fly between new superintendent Sid Sorokin and Babe Williams, the leader of the union grievance committee. Their stormy relationship comes to a head when the workers strike for a seven-and-a-half-cent pay increase, setting off not only a conflict between management and labor, but a battle of the sexes as well.

“It’s a massively romantic musical,” Richter says. “All the main characters are looking for love, or finding love, or in tumultuous relationships. The show features a depth of characterization and storytelling that contemporary musicals tend to lack.”

“The Pajama Game” was the first of two collaborations between composer/lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and playwright/director George Abbott. The following year, they had another hit with the baseball musical “Damn Yankees,” but Ross died suddenly of lung disease, just a few months after it opened. He was 29.

“As good as it is, ‘The Pajama Game’ for me is about unfulfilled promise,” Butler says. “I can only imagine what another 20 years of Adler/Ross collaborations might have produced.”

Both productions won Tony Awards for best musical, and the 2006 Broadway revival of “The Pajama Game” won another Tony for best revival. “The Pajama Game” also featured the first stage choreography by Bob Fosse, arguably the most influential choreographer in musical theater history.

“Karen (Dearborn) has done a terrific job of building dances that convey the scope and energy of the show and the spirit of Fosse’s work,” Richter says.

The production features a scenic design by Curtis Dretsch, which he describes as “lighthearted, flexible, fluid, and colorful.” The centerpieces of his set design are eight 20-foot fabric swatches, in a variety of wild pajama-like patterns, which are moved about the stage to define playing spaces. Dretsch says he has broadened his color palette to capture the spirit of the show and the era.

“The set is marginally representational, but not at all literal,” he says. “I don’t think I have ever in my life used this much color on stage.”

Chris Szczerbienski (Class of 2011) designs lights for the production. Constance Case designs the costumes. Veteran conductor Vincent Trovato will lead the 22-piece orchestra. Emma Pressman (Class of 2012) is the production stage manager.

“The Pajama Game” plays Oct. 29 through Nov. 7 in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. The production is suitable for all ages.

Performances are Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 31, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, Nov. 3-5, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 6, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 7, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $8 for patrons 17 and under. For group of 15 or more, tickets are $15.

Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.