This back-to-front chronicle of the angst-driven relationship of three monumentally self-involved friends features one of Sondheim’s more troublesome plots (book by George Furth) and one of his most enjoyable scores. Whatever their supposed ideals and/or talents, the trio of composer Franklin Shepard (Anthony Paul Meindl), writer Charley Kringas (Richard Israel) and their forever buddy Mary Flynn (Lisa Picotte) are not worthy enough for us to keep company with, let alone care about their problems.
Yet director Jules Aaron and an outstanding ensemble have infused such vitality into this jaundiced showbiz tale that it is easy to overlook the book’s innate shortcomings.
Based on a 1930s stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Sondheim originally staged the work in 1977 and personally took part in its La Jolla Playhouse revival in 1984.
Beginning in 1976, the production introduces successful but oh-so-unhappy film producer Franklin as he and his oh-so-shallow Bel-Air cronies celebrate the success of his latest oh-so-mediocre pic. Boozily tossing out barbs from the sidelines is the oh-so-tragic, overweight, alcoholic friend of his youth, Mary.
After establishing the destruction of Franklin’s career and marriage over cocktails, the production marches backward in time, each scene chronicling a momentous — “how did we get here from there?” — turning point in the intermingled lives of Franklin, Charley and Mary. The final scene, set on a Manhattan rooftop in 1957, finds the callow trio staring up at the circling Sputnik and vowing eternal co-dependency.
Director Aaron wisely guides the talented Meindl, Israel and Picotte into establishing such a fervently committed rapport that their ongoing self-destructiveness comes off as sadly unfortunate rather than just stupid. In the first act, their binding anthem, “Old Friends,” evokes the yearning of life-battered souls who are desperately trying to stay connected.
At play’s end, the trio’s joyous “Our Time” communicates the zest of youth who have not yet become tarnished.
Meindl instills a viable ambivalence in Franklin, who always appears to be making decisions that are not in his best interest (“Growing Up”). Israel perfectly captures the essence of anxiety-ridden Charley and just sails through one of Sondheim’s most virtuoso anthems, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Together, Meindl and Israel are quite appealing in their cabaret turns with “Good Thing Going” and the satirical “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” (staged to good effect by Larry Sousa). The latter number also features Melanie Winger as Franklin’s short-suffering wife Beth, who offers an exquisite rendition of one of Sondheim’s finest ballads, “Not a Day Goes By.”
One of the real pleasures of the production is Jan Sheldrick, who hilariously devours her way through the persona of self-absorbed Broadway star Gussie Carnegie.
Much of the success and facile drive of this production can be attributed to the inventive, mobile set design of Don Gruber. Gruber’s sliding panels immediately make viable every setting, whether it is the patio of a Bel-Air mansion or the seedy stage of a low-rent Manhattan nightclub.