The word “ambitious” has become nearly synonymous with Shifting Ground Collective, a small company barely two years into its existence but already more established and productive than a lot of indie companies ever become. Everyone who runs Shifting Ground is young and hopeful, their clear eyes and full hearts guiding them headfirst into the hazardous terrain of new work development and musical production in the Toronto theatre scene.


The company’s name comes from the eleven o’clock number of one of Sondheim’s most legendary flops, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along. Much revised since its disastrous first production and having a bit of a moment right now with heat in both New York and Hollywood, Merrily today is a flawed but sturdy show with a score that sounds like a Sondheim greatest hits album and a book that demands actors of not only great dramatic skill but incredible presence as they tell a story of hard-to-love characters in reverse starting from their least loveable moment (the current Broadway production features some of the most famously charming people on the planet and even they only just pull this off).


Often billed as a three-star vehicle, Merrily is more accurately the story of Frank, a composer-turned-producer whose selling out arc is supplemented with the falling apart of his friendship with fellow former dreamers Mary and Charlie and the loss of his marriage to the show’s low key best character Beth. The aforementioned eleven o’clock number occurs when the reverse-aging characters reach the start of their University years and meet on a rooftop to gaze up at the sky and dream of all the great things they plan to accomplish. This is the Shifting Ground moment, an actual lyric but also the part of the show that captures where the artists of the Shifting Ground Collective are in their lives and careers.


It’s a great name for a company of Marys and Charlies even if its earnest application sidesteps the melancholy hubristic irony with which the lyric was originally deployed. Its selection as a name also plainly foretold that, clearly a favourite, Merrily We Roll Along was coming down the pike whether the company was really ready to play it or not. Only their second production ever, Shifting Ground’s Merrily We Roll Along is currently onstage at the Annex Theatre on Bathurst.


Though perhaps a little scapegoaty for some of director Hal Prince’s wilder missteps, the failure of the original Broadway production is pretty much always pinned on the youth of the cast. The Merrily characters start around 40 and move their way back to about 20. Generally nowadays they’re cast with 30-something who can split the difference, straining credibility in both directions but never by 20 years. Shifting Ground in their marketing material was proud to say they were taking the show back to its controversial roots with its cast of mostly early 20-somethings. Unfortunately, predictably, all the scenes that don’t work in Shifting Ground’s current production are in the first half where the weaknesses in their straight acting chops and experience level let them down. Though the acting is consistently better within the songs themselves, the straight scenes suffer when the actors are playing further from their own life experience. As they age backwards, the cast seems to relax into something far more natural and their charm and connections shine through much more brightly.


The one exception is Sydney Gauvin whose Beth is a complex and beautifully captured complete creation from her first entrance (which is, to be fair, later than her costars’ but still in challenging late thirties divorcée territory). Gauvin beautifully blends a vulnerable acting performance with strong, controlled vocals in the score’s great masterpiece “Not a Day Goes By”. By the time that song heartbreakingly comes back around, Shifting Ground’s managing producer Colette Richardson has settled into the difficult role of Mary to be able to join Gauvin in the show-stopping with Sondheim’s stirring unison reprise. An excellent (and not at all under-powered) singer, Richardson kicks into gear around the halfway mark with “Now You Know” but her voice weaves in and out of audibility over the band because her microphone is mysteriously the only one placed at the actor’s hairline instead of across her cheek.


Throughout the whole production, small technical issues like this pop up to create an overall unpolished effect. Both versions of “Not a Day Goes By”, though especially the first iteration, are delivered with moving stillness that stands out from the freneticism that envelopes most of director Joshua רועי Kilimnik’s production. The large ensemble seems crowded on the small stage as they shakily navigate unnecessarily complicated choreography with a very wide range of dance prowess (thank god for Jada Rifkin). Smooth scene transitions are thankfully prioritized but clunky use of space and awkward interpersonal blocking make the dramatic performances even more of a challenge.


The desire to stage a dream show and play a dream part is right at the centre of the foundation of nearly every actor-led theatre collective out there. It’s an easy instinct to relate to, and that “we can do anything!” attitude is conceptually admirable and charmingly meta-theatrical as applied to a group of too green artists taking on Merrily We Roll Along. But the fact that they’re too green remains true, far more than their being too young. Last year’s inaugural production of Ordinary Days was a celebrated feat of indie-theatre-making that was a great success in part because of its inventive upstart energy. A small space, a small cast, limited props, and a relatively unknown text allowed that show to show off the exciting and excited artists bringing it to life. Here they’re buried under the weight of a show three times the size with a legacy that functions like a dare.


I want Shifting Ground Collective to have staying power. That means programming work that this company with its particular abilities, resources, and demographics can execute better than another company could. Merrily We Roll Along plays to Shifting Ground’s taste, not to their strengths, and as a result they don’t look as strong as I know they are, or can be. Ambition, audacity, big dreams- that’s the power that keeps the engine moving, but they’ve got to take the time and care to build a vehicle that can stay on the road when they hit inevitable bumps.