MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, White Horse Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 musical adaptation of Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play is built on a fascinating but potentially crippling gimmick: the story is told backward, moving from 1976 to 1957. Such a structure could easily devolve into an intellectual exercise--a regular problem with Sondheim's beautiful but sometimes cold work.
White Horse Theatre addresses this issue by packing its show with young, earnest performers. No one has the vocal range or the professional seasoning to perform Sondheim's tunes flawlessly. Whiskey-voiced Cassie Wooley comes closest, but even she fails to negotiate Sondheim's most difficult passages. And sometimes the acting is rough and too broad. In this tale of a talented trio--a composer, a lyricist, and a writer--Jon Cunningham as the perpetual second banana has a wonderful Danny Kaye quality to him, but Mark Larson doesn't really possess the range or the animal magnetism to be fully convincing as the wunderkind. And Wooley doesn't yet act as well as she sings.
Still, energy (and a touch of sentimentality), not clinical perfection, is what this sometimes cynical puzzle needs: no one in the story escapes bitterness or disappointment. And energy is something the show has in abundance, provided in part by a four-person orchestra.