Meredith Ensemble Theatre is currently staging a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of the 2012 remake of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along. Full staging in Meredith’s Jones Auditorium includes a twenty-five-piece orchestra under the direction of Dr. Jim Waddelow, Meredith’s Director of Instrumental Music. The play is directed by Catherine Rodgers, who has coaxed Equity actor Peter Vitale back to the Triangle to play the lead in the show, Frank Shepherd.

The musical depicts the life of songwriter and film producer Shepherd and his friends Charley (Jon Skinner) and Mary (Karyn Raynor) from the day of their first meeting, in 1957, to the day their friendship ends, in 1976. The play opens in Bel Air, CA, in 1976 and wends its way backwards, gradually fading through the years until we see the three as young aspiring talent, ready and able to take in the world. In a total of nine scenes, we see how Frank’s choices have led him to this moment, in 1976, where everything has fallen apart.

The play has a cast of 16, including seven members of Alpha Psi Omega, the Honor Theatre Fraternity. These seven include Raynor and Elena Mulligan, who plays Gussie, Frank’s wife and the show’s perennial witch. At the top of the show, we meet Frank and his entourage, as they celebrate the release of his latest film (“That Frank” Company). Mary is there, slowly becoming inebriated, as is Gussie, who blows open the whole affair by attacking Frank’s latest fling, his current starlet.

The play makes use of musical interludes, Transitions, to transport us back through time. The recurring theme, “Merrily We Roll Along,” is intrepidly sung by this superb chorus, as we slip slowly back through the decades. The book by George Furth keep us abreast of what is happening as the years recede. We first meet Frank’s friend and collaborator, Charley, as he and Mary wait nervously backstage at a TV studio, afraid Frank is a no-show for the broadcast (“Old Friends,” “Like It Was”). Frank makes his usual last-minute entrance with new wife, Gussie, on his arm, and he and Charley are quickly rushed on set. When Charley learns that Frank, instead of recommitting to their collaboration, has signed for a new three-film producer’s contract, Charley loses it and goes on a terrible and terrific tirade (“Frank Shepherd, Inc.”) on-camera, nationwide. Frank vows never to work with Charley again, and will not allow his name to be mentioned.

Other points of Frank’s life featured include his divorce from wife Beth (Sydney Ferrell) and his separation from their son (“Not a Day Goes By” Beth). We see Frank’s gains and losses through the years, including his ups and downs of trying to make it in the business (“It’s A Hit” Quintet, Act II). Charley and Frank’s collaboration seems to have more lows than highs, despite the fact that they achieve some modicum of fame.

Sondheim’s music is handled beautifully by this cast, especially the show’s main trio: Frank, Charley, and Mary. Vitale and Skinner have a real connection musically (“Old Friends”) and much is made of the fact that Mary has been in love with Frank for years, but has never let him know.

The show is staged with minimal set pieces, allowing for smooth transitions as scenes fade into each other when time fades backward. The scenic and lighting designs by Jenni Mann Becker assist in the quick and efficient scene changes that occur while the scintillating chorus belts out Sondheim’s multiple Transitions. LeGrande Smith’s costume design dates the characters as they grow younger, even supplying Frank and Charley with comical wigs as they portray characters from the First Family in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.”

Watching these characters develop backwards is a trip, in more than one sense. All the members of the cast work well in shedding the years, but the most fun is watching Frank and Charley as we see the work they’ve written together (“Good Thing Going,” Charley, Frank). Vitale plays a mean piano, reflecting the fact that Shepherd is the fictional Sondheim to Charley’s Furth. By the time we reach 1957, Frank is a fresh-faced youth, newly home from the service and wondering at Charley’s impressive writing ability (“Our Time” Frank and Charley). As Mary meets the duo for the first time, we see the excitement in these young faces as they set off together through the lives that lead to 1976. We are struck by the youth and determination of the trio, and the stark contrast between then and the opening is driven forcibly home.

Meredith Ensemble Theatre has assembled a brilliant cast for their musical, and this fresh staging has a multitude of highlights, with dynamic vocal groupings from trio to quintet, and voices that fire on all cylinders. Sadly, there was not a very large audience on opening night; this excellent recreation of a signature Sondheim musical deserves a wider audience. The characters were sharp and vivid, and the voices were stellar. Merrily We Roll Along only runs through Sunday, April 10, so get your tickets now. This fine show deserves a fine audience, so bring your friends.

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