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Merrily We Roll Along

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 12, 2022

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe
Photo by Joan Marcus
It hasn't even been four years since the last professional revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along. Roundabout Theatre Company presented Fiasco's pared-down production with a tweaked book in the spring of 2019, and it received mixed notices. Now, on the other side of a pandemic, with political contentiousness at a boiling point and days that feel like we are on the brink of World War III, nothing seems more gratifyingly normal than reopening the forty-year debate about one of the most divisive shows in the musical theatre canon. Thankfully, the production of Merrily currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop and directed by Maria Friedman offers plenty of material for all impassioned sides.

As anyone reading this review probably already knows, Merrily is loosely based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and it tells the story of three friends–a composer, a lyricist, and a writer–who as youths are wide-eyed and idealistic but become embittered and disillusioned in middle age. The musical drops in on them in scenes that span the course of twenty years and (as one of the songs explains) shows them as they burn their bridges, let go of their illusions, and put their dimples down.

The musical's conceit, and the one that has bedeviled some of the finest directors in the business, is that the narrative is presented in reverse chronological order. The problematic book can be a fascinating intellectual exercise but can repel emotional engagement.

This production's staging is essentially a recreation of the version produced at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 and which later moved to the West End. Friedman's framing begins with composer-turned-movie-producer Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff) clutching a script and contemplating how everything fell apart, with the audience wondering how the character became the shallow, philandering sell-out we meet in the first (final) scene.

The device effectively gives the events of the story more cohesion, and it establishes Frank as reflective and more sympathetic than we typically see him. Groff, who is an immensely likeable performer in everything, is terrific here, and he serves Sondheim's songs beguilingly. He plays the role as someone who is naturally charming and yet is aware of the power of that charm. You can't take your eyes off him.

And that's a problem.

Groff's dominance throws off the equilateral triangle's balance, particularly in Frank's relationship with his friend and writing partner Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe). A self-aware Frank makes the moral compass Charley dispensable, and as hard as Radcliffe works (performing with the mannerisms and disheveled appearance of a young Woody Allen), the character keeps getting sidelined. More than any other time I've seen the show, I found myself asking the musical question, "Where's Charley?" As a result, this is the first production that did not leave me a sobbing mess at the end of the show.

That said, Radcliffe does not at all disappoint with his manic showcase number "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and he nails every "mutter mutter mutter mutter," "bzzz," and "drrring."

As Mary Flynn, Lindsay Mendez is outstanding. In her backward arc, she convincingly transitions from drunken dissolution to emotional desperation to sisterly supportiveness, ending with awkward coquettishness. Moreover, her version of "Now You Know" is presented with such fierce urgency, the moment stands out as the lynchpin for the unraveling of the professional and personal relationships.

The Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
Secretary-cum-Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Krystal Joy Brown) is often presented as an exaggerated and cartoonish musical-theatre diva, and as entertaining as she is, it's hard to see why she is such a magnet for powerful men, including producer Joe Josephson (Reg Rogers, who is very funny). Brown, who looks stunning in costume designer Soutra Gilmour's gowns and Cookie Jordan's witty wigs, dispels any question, and she is mesmerizing. In the show-within-the-show, she calls to mind the glamour and vocal stylizations of Diahann Carroll, and the choice is perfect for the period. (Gilmour's costumes for the leads are less effective since they change very little over the course of the show, thereby resisting a sense of transforming personalities).

Gussie is a notable antithesis to the naïve and mousy Beth (Katie Rose Clarke, who expertly performs one of the score's stand-out songs, "Not a Day Goes By").

The ensemble does fine work, serving as a Greek chorus of sorts and playing a multitude of parts, including reporters, family members, and snooty partygoers. A visual highpoint of the evening occurs during Gussie's party scene, which is populated by the cultural dilettanti, or as she describes, "The Blob." Executing Tim Jackson's choreography, they move as a writhing, mutating organism, not unlike the group composition, or amoeba formation, that Bob Fosse employed.

The musicians are sequestered in a windowed music room above the stage, and the sound (by Kai Harada) from where I was sitting (near the back) is clear and distinctive. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for nine band members (with Alvin Hough, Jr. music directing and on keys) are always exciting.

The musical's staging is hampered by an unattractive and impractical scenic design by Gilmour. The boxy, geometric set with a 1970s wood-paneled staircase downstage, and a large plate-glass window in the back works well for the Beverly Hills ranch house in the beginning but not for later scenes. For a musical that flies through time and space, the environs seem resolutely sedentary. It also seems to be at odds with Amith Chandrashaker's chaser lights and period evocations.

Sondheim's score for this show remains one of my favorites, and the world always seems a better place when there is a production of Merrily We Roll Along playing somewhere in it. This isn't a definitive production by any means, but the best thing about a problematic musical is that there will always be a wonderfully arrogant and visionary artist who thinks they can finally master the beast. Until that time, imperfect as it is, this Merrily will do just fine.

Merrily We Roll Along
Through January 22, 2023
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: