Merrily’s Cast Brings Characters to Life

“Merrily We Roll Along,” with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, is both depressing and inspiring.The musical was directed at Swarthmore by Jonghee Quispe ’14 and stage managed by Marta Roncada ’14. It was performed on LPAC mainstage this past weekend.“For me, the most difficult part of the play was also the most enjoyable,” Quispe said. “I didn’t have a lot of models to go off of, since the play is not produced very often. We had to make it ourselves. We were left on our own. That’s what makes it original and from our own hearts.”

Quispe has now directed or music-directed a Sondheim production in each of her three fall semesters at Swarthmore. Two years ago she music-directed “Assassins,” and last year she directed and music-directed “Company.” She has done other directing work at Swarthmore, including music-directing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (by Rebecca Feldman and William Finn) last spring.

“This is the most I’ve ever felt any sense of ownership over a production,” she said. “It was our vision, it showed, and people responded to it.”

Quispe was fortunate enough to have 17 actors in the show, enough for the large ensemble that the musical calls for. One of her proudest moments was “the blob,” a group of black-clad critics and “important people” whom Gussie (Anna Ramos ’13) bosses around. In the “blob scene,” tthe critics stood in a tableau center-stage and moved to sing, then resumed the tableau, moved to sing again, and so on. The scene was sharp and enjoyable.

The production can be characterized by those two adjectives. One of the audience favorites, judging by the loud, long applause after the song, was “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” sung by Charley (Paolo Debuque ’15). In the song, Charley lashes out at Frank for being obsessed with making money and not caring about music or his friends—“The rest of us he keeps on hold,” he sings. The song is excellent, and Debuque filled the room with manic energy; his acting ability was surpassed only by his singing ability.

Daniel Cho ’15, acting, dancing, and singing trifecta, was excellent as the lead, Franklin Shepard. Cho’s greatest success in the production was his ability to find good even in Frank’s worst moments, and to be a character that the audience can first hate, then love.

Cho and Debuque worked well together onstage. The memory of their frustration and disdain for each other at the beginning of the play became more and more poignant as the play went on and their love and respect for each other started to shine through.

Not to be outdone, the other leads and the ensemble were energetic and passionate.

Kimaya Diggs ‘15’s solo near the end of Act I, “Not a Day Goes By,” about her constant pain in the wake of Frank cheating on her and his absence, was heart-wrenching. Ramos was utterly detestable as proud, sexy Gussie, Allison Hrabar ’16 was solid and likeable as Mary, and Chris Magnano ’14 was very funny as lighthearted, sometimes pathetic Joe.

When asked about their favorite moments in the play, audience members responded differently.

“My favorite song was ‘Old Friends,’” said Sarah Kaeppel ’15, who said that she liked all the singers but that “my favorites were Anna and Kimaya.”

Patrick Ross ’15 said that his favorite moment of “Merrily” was “Anna Ramos’ walk. It characterized Gussie very well. You know what type of character she is before she even opens her mouth.”

“I really liked the part at the end with the video,” said Quitterie Gounot ’13, referencing the video that was projected onto the scrim (a type of gossamer screen) behind the actors during the final song. The video showed clips from the production’s rehearsals. “As someone who doesn’t do theater, something that strikes me a lot is how the ensemble works together… and it was interesting how the video mirrored the content of the song,” Gounot said.

The play moves backwards in time, starting with a big party celebrating Frank’s success and showing his misery, and ending when he, Charley, and their new friend Mary are just starting out, full of hope about the future. The video continues the trend of going backwards by showing what came even before the show. At the same time, the video tells the audience that Swarthmore students are at that same hopeful beginning as Frank, Charley, and Mary.

“This show continuously made more sense to me as we kept doing it,” said Ana Apostoleris ’13, who played both an ensemble member and Frank’s newest, youngest girlfriend in the first scene. “The concept of where we came from and how we got to where we are is so not abstract, so relevant to where we are right now that it was really powerful. The show gave you a lot of time to think about it and your own personal relationship with it.”

Without feeling preachy, “Merrily” leaves a young audience with the message that our lives can be full of hope and inspiration, and that we must hold on to our love—of our friends and our art—if we want to be happy.

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