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Reversal of Fortune

Backwards chronology hinders sparkling music at Signature.

The 15th production of a Stephen Sondheim musical by Signature Theatre has many of the trademarks of its previous 14, including strong performances and a great-sounding orchestra.

However, the fact that "Merrily We Roll Along" tells its story in reverse chronological order is too big a problem for the production to overcome.

This isn't the first time that "Merrily" has been overwhelmed by its backwards-in-time structure. When the show first opened, on Broadway in 1981, it only lasted two weeks. Various efforts to re-work the script and improve the presentation have had widely different levels of success. Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who has a nationwide reputation for reviving the works of Stephen Sondheim, directed this production and stumbled over some of the same problems that have plagued the show from the start.

The script is based on a play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934, which told its story backwards. When Sondheim and his collaborator George Furth turned it into a musical, they retained that structure.

The audience needs a lot of help to understand this story, as it regresses instead of progresses. The evening starts at the tale's end, and it ends 20 years earlier with each scene taking place before the events that form the background for it. For example, the audience sees the divorce before the marriage and the marriage before the courtship.

This production doesn't provide the help needed. Even printing a list of scenes and their time and place in the program would help; instead, there are just the titles of the musical numbers.

While the lyrics of transitional dance numbers do provide the year as the action transitions from 1979 to 1974 and 1964 to 1960, the places and the events aren't explained so the audience has to take the clues from each scene to figure out just what is going on, where and why.

WILL GARTSHORE STARS as the songwriting composer at the center of the story. He displays a great deal of charm and both a rich voice and a facility for piano — often accompanying himself along with Jon Kalbfliesch's great 12-piece orchestra.

The songwriting lyricist who is the other half of the songwriting team is played by Erik Liberman. He doesn't make as much of an impression as Gartshore does, but he's battling both the fact that the reworking of the show — since its initial failure on Broadway — reduced the scope of his role, and that he's given two ugly costumes in a sickly green color that defeat his effort to seem down-to-earth and pleasant.

Tracy Lynn Olivera is very good as the third member of this trio of good friends, whose career decisions strain the bonds of their friendship. She's especially good in the first act high-drama scenes when her acting ability helps her past the difficulty that the audience doesn't always know the background of the problems she's facing.

The supporting cast includes a superb Christopher Bloch as the producer of the team's shows; a fine Tory Ross as the star of one of those shows, who divorces the producer in order to marry the composer; and Bayla Whitten, who sings well but suffers from the most constricted character development in the script as the composer's first wife and early performance partner.

Sondheim's score includes the plaintive "Like It Was"; a sharp comic patter song "Franklin Shepard, Inc."; a comic shtick number about the Kennedys, "Bobby and Jackie and Jack"; the lovely love ballad that Whitten sings so nicely, "Not a Day Goes By"; and a stirring anthem to youthful optimism, "Our Time."

All too often the function of the song is obscured until well into the scene it serves, but all are delivered with enthusiasm that will please fans of Sondheim or those who know the songs from recordings by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region, www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.