News Column

The Fresno Bee, Donald Munro column

October 26, 2013


Oct. 26--It's part of my ritual: When I attend a performance, just before it begins, I take a photo of the program or ticket stub and post it on Twitter and Facebook.

(Please note that I generally do not update my friends and followers with the arcane logistical details of my life -- I firmly believe there's altogether too much oversharing going on these days -- but some readers seem to get a kick out of knowing when and where I'm reviewing a show.)

On Wednesday at Edwards Cinemas, I did my usual Twitter/Facebook routine before settling in to watch the acclaimed London production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," on the big screen. This version of the 1981 musical, regarded by most through the years as one of Sondheim's flops, became the toast of the London theater world last year. Sondheim himself announced it was the best version of "Merrily" he'd ever seen.

The three stars of the show -- Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley -- were spectacular as three longtime friends enmeshed in the world of theater. Told in reverse chronological order, the musical kicks off by showing us the commercial success of Franklin Shepard (played by Umbers), a rich film producer. We also learn of his emotional and professional angst. The show then moves back gradually in time over 20 years, tracing the three friends back to their optimistic and idealistic artistic roots.

The next morning, I saw that Umbers had "favorited" my tweet. With the filmed version of the show being screened Wednesday nationwide, he must have searched on Twitter for the show's title and found it that way.

I was thrilled. My reaction, indeed, was far out of proportion to the actual act of Umbers' acknowledging my Tweet. (For all I know, he could have "favorited" hundreds or even thousands of them.)

Still, there was a connection.

Here's what strikes me most by the experience: My sliver of an interaction with an actor whose performance I loved demonstrates how technology is altering the performance experience.

Generally speaking, I'd say you'd have to be crazy to prefer a filmed production over being there live. No matter how impressive the camera work, sound and lighting is on the big screen, it's no substitute for being in the theater itself. (And this filmed production of "Merrily" was fairly low-budget and unimpressive in terms of technology.) Live theater is precious. Knowing that you're present, in the moment, for a performance that will never be replicated in the exact same way is special. I will climb to the tops of whatever high-altitude perches you direct me toward and forever proclaim the amazement of live theater.

But we can't always be there live. While I would have dearly loved to jet off to the West End theater district in London for a long weekend to see "Merrily," I couldn't have afforded it. Geography does constrain pretty much everyone but the super-rich.

And even if you do live in a place like New York, ticket prices can be prohibitive, especially for the good seats. When the Metropolitan Opera in New York kicked off its successful "Live in HD" series in 2006, it meant that opera lovers who up till that point could only afford nose-bleed seats got to experience what it's like to be up close live with the singers.

With "Merrily," the show made it to Fresno at the same time as New York. Although it received rave reviews, including one from the influential Ben Brantley of the New York Times, there's no indication the productions will make the move from London to Broadway.

The result: Sondheim fans got to see the show in Manhattan on the same evening as the rest of the country. (Early shows sold out in New York, and late-night screenings and more theaters were added.)

I'd never seen "Merrily" on stage, though like any Sondheim fan I was familiar with most of the music. I found myself wrapped up in the storyline, though I was a little surprised at just how dark the show is. At his oldest in the play -- which because of the reverse-chronology format is actually the beginning, remember -- Frank has money and success but has lost his dream of making a difference in the world through his music. His marriage is a wreck, he doesn't speak to his son, and his relationship with his two best friends is in the toilet.

The show asks: What do we give up when we compromise in a world in which money is so often king?

The score is wonderful -- including the well-loved Sondheim song "Not a Day Goes By" -- but what really stood out for me was the direction and acting. It was all about chemistry. Sometimes magic strikes in a production, and it's a privilege to witness it.

And I got to see it at Edwards.

Now that's something to tweet about.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at


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