Kelsey holds a BFA in Theatre Studies and a BS in Cinema/Media Studies from the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. She's a freelance dramaturg, most recently working with Circle Theatre's Venus in Fur. Kelsey believes in theater's ability to change the world. A mix of wit and lit.
Pictured (l-r): Aja Wiltshire, Jim DeSelm, Matt Crowle and Neela Barron. Photo by Michael Courier.
By Kelsey McGrath
What I like most about Porchlight Musical Theatre Company is their ability to root their productions in honesty. As I’m sitting in the audience, I believe that these characters in front of me are experiencing emotions too big for mere speech, that song is the only appropriate form of expression for the moment. That their passions and fears and hopes and dreams are so big and so moving that “to sing” is their only option. Time and time again, Porchlight presents shows without the bells and whistles you’ll get at the big suburban musical theaters or from the national tours downtown. And that’s what makes their shows so exciting. They’re human. Despite layers of design and direction and talented actors, it’s the story and the undercurrent of shared emotion that are lifted up.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is no exception to this standard. As Porchlight gets comfortable in their new home at the Ruth Page Center, MERRILY is another genuine, well-executed work, dripping with talent and finesse. Leads Jim DeSelm, Neala Barron, and Matt Crowle each bring a level of integrity and personality to their roles that dismiss any possibility of archetype. I was interested in their unique emotional journeys and the tangle of their relationships. The supporting roles and ensemble are also strong, further strengthened by the Porchlight aesthetic.
The design of this production is also beautiful in its simplicity and practicality. Presented with an open space surrounded by doors, projections of the times help the narrative move along.
There was something about MERRILY that didn’t sit right with me, though. It’s an overwhelming glow of nostalgia and idealization that make the show seem outdated. Yes. I understand this piece ACTUALLY takes places in the 60s, 70s, etc. But the methods of art-making and living are so different now that being an audience member in 2018, the message didn’t feel like it applied to me. Like the show happened in a glass box and was solely for the purpose of demonstration. We also must acknowledge the fact that our main character Johnny is another self-destructive white man. He makes terrible choices time and time again, then gets hurt when his bridges are burned. And we’re being asked to have empathy for his plight, which was a bit of a stretch for me. Not only that, happiness for the main women in the show revolves around men. The trio of leads were also white; not to advocate tokenism, but if this is such a universal story, that definitely doesn’t help.
Director Michael Weber asks us “How did we get here?” and at what costs are we willing to stay true to our original dreams and intentions. Which are valuable considerations. However, for hard working artists of 2018, MERRILY is drenched in privilege to the point of being unrelatable.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is well done, it’s entertaining, and it’s honest, and prime Porchlight work. It prompts the big questions — however, it feels dated and meant for a specific audience.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG runs through March 11th. For more information visit porchlightmusictheatre.org.