Front Porch Theatricals knows the power of friendship.
The production company was formed in 2009 when three friends — Bruce E.G. Smith, Leon Zionts and Nany Zionts — decided to produce “Only Me.”
Smith was apprehensive about teaming with a couple, thinking he’d be the odd man out when it came time to make decisions, Nancy Zionts said.
“He was nervous partnering with a couple, thinking it would be a two-to-one vote,” she recalled. “He didn’t know about us as a couple.”
When Leon Zionts died in 2019, the three-legged stool became two without diminishing its strength.
“There’s a lot of mutual respect,” she said.
That history, Zionts explained, was a contributing factor to why she and Smith decided to produce Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”
“The show is about two guys and a girl,” Zionts noted. “A guy who writes songs, a guy who writes lyrics and a friend of theirs who’s an author. So, that concept of the three partners is how we looked at ourselves.”
The pair kept the idea of producing the show in their back pockets, waiting for the right moment to bring it to the Pittsburgh stage.
When Daina Michelle Griffith approached Smith and Zionts with the idea of directing the show, saying that it meant a lot to her, they knew the time was right.
Griffith had worked with the company as an actress, but this would be her first time directing at Front Porch.
“We always try to give a director a show that’s going to resonate with them,” Zionts said.
The show not only resonates with the producers and director. Actor Dan Mayhak, who plays Frank, one of the musical’s leads, said there’s a lot for him to sink his teeth into.
He said he sees “a lot of parallels” with his character, “not only in my life, but in a lot of the lives of my friends who are artists and starting to find their way — and not break away from the things they know and the people they love, but kind of, at least physically, move further away from them.”
His peers, he said, are figuring out how to navigate keeping the things that matter close to them while pursuing their dreams.
The 27-year-old is a Forest Hills native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate. His favorite piece to perform from the production is “Opening Doors,” the only song in the work that Sondheim described as autobiographical.
The production as a whole, though, has helped him think about his life as an actor and artist.
“I’m only continuing to find more and more things that make me get a different perspective on my own life and think a little more deeply about how I can connect art to the things I care about,” he said.
Musical Director Douglas Levine knows his way around the music of a production, having started his career in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a composer with the Dance Alloy company before moving to musical theater. He has composed for various theater companies in Pittsburgh and worked with both Point Park University and Pitt.
“For the last 25 years, I’ve been doing this kind of freelancing where I’ve had several shows a year as a musical director for places like Front Porch, which is very near and dear to my heart, and other companies like City Theatre and, more recently, Quantum Theatre and the Pittsburgh Public Theater,” Levine said.
As a musical director, Levine serves a dual role, helping the actors learn the songs and the ensemble to learn the harmonies. He then shifts gears and accompanies the actors as they learn the choreography and block scenes on stage. Eventually, he works with the musicians and conducts the show.
He noted that “Merrily We Roll Along” isn’t the easiest to produce in terms of music, but taking it on is part of a professionalism he’s seen that has grown over the years since the founding of Front Porch.
“That has really reaped rewards for the company,” he said, “because as actors and designers have seen, this little boutique musical theater company, as they call themselves, has gotten better and better; they’ve wanted to be a part of it.”
Like everyone else connected to Front Porch, Levine said his work is dedicated to Leon Zionts, especially on opening night.
“For Nancy, this is legacy work,” he said. “This was a passion project for Leon. He was one of the founders, and Nancy and Bruce have really taken the football and ran with it.”
And while it’s nice to have an ethereal link to the theater’s virtual heart, Zionts said there’s an actual physical connection in each of the productions.
“In every show,” she said, “there’s a Leon moment or a ‘Leon something.’ If you’re attuned, you’ll pick it up.”
During “A Man of No Importance,” she said, the director created a scene where the actors on stage had umbrellas and when they pointed them down the entire cast was wearing berets, a hat instantly identified with the company’s founder.
“We try to maintain him as part of the show,” she said.
Theater lovers will have to attend the performance to see how Zionts is recalled during “Merrily We Roll Along,” one of Sondheim’s least-seen musicals. It first opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed after only 16 performances.
The years have been kinder than the show’s initial critical reaction. It was rewritten and had several productions, including an off-Broadway revival in 1994 and a 2000 London premiere that won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
History, it seems, proves that there is something of a Front Porch Theatricals touch: “Parade,” which the company produced in 2014, was revived on Broadway earlier this year and “Light in the Piazza,” a 2015 Front Porch production, was staged at New York City Center this summer. Leon Zionts performed in another Sondheim show, “Sweeney Todd,” shortly before forming the Pittsburgh production company. That show has found success both on and off Broadway and on the big screen.
“We’re more than happy to be a talent scout,” Zionts said.
“Merrily We Roll Along” will run from Aug. 18-27 at the New Hazlett Theater. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.