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Off Broadway Reviews

Merrily We Roll Along

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 24, 2019

Manu Narayan, Emily Young, Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld,
Jessie Austrian and Paul L. Coffey
Photo by Joan Marcus

Has a flop musical ever behaved less like a flop musical than Merrily We Roll Along? The 1981 George Furth-Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince disaster staggered through 16 performances, then wouldn't shut up. It's been revered, rewritten, and revived constantly, and now it's back, scaled down and further reconceived, by the Fiasco Theater (whose Into the Woods was warmly received in the same theater four years back). It's been the subject of a well-liked 2016 film documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, and its many fans won't stop discussing it — check out the voluminous back-and-forth on All That Chat alone. I'm not enough of a maven to closely parse how this Merrily differs from other Merrilys, but I'll tell you this: The score is still great. And the show is still a downer.

Frequently fascinating, but a downer. Did its negativism originate with the source material, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play of the same name? Perhaps, but surely Sondheim and Furth seized and amplified it. One need only sit through the same authors' Company (bachelorhood sucks, but so does marriage) to familiarize oneself with their bleak worldview, or Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies (you will make terrible choices in your youth, and they will ruin the rest of your life). Here, boiled down, the message seems to be, don't have friends, because they'll only disappoint and betray you. Oh, and incidentally, regarding leading character Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld): If you're good at one thing, composing, but decide you'd like to be good at something else, producing movies, you're a sellout and a traitor. Sondheim and Furth's negativity becomes as reflexive, and predictable, as what some observers, who ought to observe more closely, take to be Rodgers and Hammerstein's optimism. Those two aren't all raindrops on roses and larks learning to pray, but Sondheim and Furth only set up "worlds to change and worlds to win" to knock them down.

Yet, since the story is told in reverse chronology, it ends on a happy note, with Frank, soon-to-be collaborator Charley (Manu Narayan), and soon-to-be best friend Mary (Jessie Austrian) witnessing Sputnik (would it really have been visible from a Manhattan rooftop?) and exulting that 1957 is "Our Time," one of Sondheim's most exalted and affecting moments. Three young artists, their futures beckoning, trembling with promise and anticipation — it's irresistible, and so is "Opening Doors," which Sondheim has called his only truly autobiographical number, Frank and Charley and Mary developing their talents and careers in the exciting New York of the late '50s. One wishes the authors had spent more time in this rich, upbeat environment, and less exploring how careers, relationships, and youthful idealism crumble.

But that's essentially the rest of the show, ending, or rather beginning, with Mary a bitter, nasty drunk, Charley a judgmental scold, and Frank a shallow opportunist. Fiasco largely tells it clearly and well, whittling the original cast of 27 (the play had 91!) down to six, with Brittany Bradford, Paul L. Coffey, and Emily Young rushing through wardrobe changes to embody wronged spouses, shlubby mentors, and disparaging in-laws (the latter a scene newly restored from the Kaufman and Hart, and adding little). Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton's costumes are a fun exercise in time travel, with a couple of odd choices — especially for Gussie, Frank's second wife and leading lady, who would never wear those things — and Derek McLane's set, a backstage repository of detritus acquired through these characters' lives (one clever touch: a marquee of the Alvin Theater, where Merrily played in 1981), is a distracting eyeful. Noah Brody's direction is lively, but could use more focus: So much is going on, we're not always sure where to look.

Aurally, there have been better Merrilys. Alexander Gemignani, scaling down Jonathan Tunick's brilliant original charts, has orchestrated for eight pieces — big for off-Broadway, but it sounds bare-bones, seldom engaging the whole ensemble and often limited to piano plus not much else. Steinfeld and Narayan both possess generic baritenors, and Mary doesn't sit well in Austrian's range —her transitions to head voice are jarring, and she has a raspiness that may be suitable for the character but isn't always pleasant. Narayan does honorably by "Franklin Shepard Inc.," Charley's showpiece excoriation of his writing partner, though he shouts it more than sings it, and Bradford, as Frank's first wife, gets two helpings of "Not a Day Goes By," one angry and sarcastic, the other loving and hopeful; she's good. "The Hills of Tomorrow," Frank's school anthem, featuring a musical figure he'll use again and again, goes missing, and is missed. "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," Frank and Charley's revue song about the Kennedys, is so fastidiously conceived by Sondheim that he even includes mistakes a young team from the period would have made (repetitiveness, over-rhyming); it's a treat, but isn't 1960, with JFK not even in office yet, a little early for it? The great original, Jule-Styne-homage overture is limited to excerpts used as playout music. Other numbers added to the score after the original run, "Growing Up" and "The Blob" and Gussie's diegetic "He's Only a Boy," tell the story beautifully, it's just a depressing story.

A fragmented one, too. The characters change, largely for the worse, but the transitions seem to happen offstage, and we're left with scene-by-scene snapshots of their downward progression. We end up liking none of them; Charley, the closest thing to a hero, is less so than usual here, and Frank and Mary turn into (meaning, start out as) such rotters that we wonder why we're wasting our time with them. But there the trio are at the end (the beginning), gazing skyward and oozing adolescent idealism, and even as we're sent out on a high note, we're glumly pondering Sondheim and Furth's sad ironies, beginning with that title: In their world, rolling along merrily is the one thing nobody ever does.

Merrily We Roll Along
Through April 7
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street just west of Sixth Avenue
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