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Theatre in Review: Merrily We Roll Along (Fiasco Theater/Roundabout Theatre Company)

Jessie Austrian, Manu Naryan, Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Merrily We Roll Along has the dubious status of being the most picked-over of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. Ever since its doomed 1981 opening -- an event seismic enough to be recorded in the excellent documentary "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened" -- it has returned repeatedly in various revised editions. Songs have been added and cut, and, mysteriously, the book continues to be revised, without attribution, even though George Furth, the author, died in 2000. This version features at least one new scene; did they have a Ouija board in the rehearsal room?

All of this nipping and tucking has been for naught, however, because none of it can address the central issue that makes Merrily We Roll Along an unsolvable problem, namely the backward-moving structure that is its signature feature. Adapted from a Kaufman and Hart underperformer from the 1934-35 season, Furth's book begins, following a brief 1980 prologue, with three successful show business figures, former friends, now estranged and stewing in misery; the action moves backward, checking in every few years to reveal their many disappointments and compromises, ending on the night, in 1957, when they pledge themselves to the twin causes of art and social change. By then, however, we know that Frank, the composer turned film producer, has sold his soul for multiple wives and a mansion in Bel Air; Mary, once a promising (and best-selling) novelist, is a boozing, bitter movie critic; and Charley, formerly Frank's librettist and now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, feels bereft without the friends he loved.

It's not the freshest story, and the inverted plot is designed to give it additional irony and emotional heft. Instead, it never manages to explain why one is supposed to care about these extravagantly unhappy worldlings and their largely self-inflicted problems. An answer finally arrives, if you're willing to wait an act and a half for it. Otherwise, for most of the running time, you're seeing the divorce before you know anything about the marriage, and you experience this trio's grievances without knowing what they ever saw in each other. You have to take an awful lot on faith in Merrily We Roll Along; it's a dramatic IOU that gets paid long after its due date.

This vest-pocket production by Fiasco Theater does get some things right. The 1979 sequence features the original number, "Rich and Happy," which is far wittier and more pointed than its rather wan replacement, "That Frank." Several transitional sequences, marking the passage of time, have been cut, helping to pick up the pace. The later -- that is to say, the earlier -- scenes are especially lively and amusing: "Bobby and Jackie and Jackie," a satirical cabaret number performed by Frank, Charley, and Beth (who will become Frank's first wife) -- bubbles with an unforced sense of fun, and "Opening Doors," in which Frank, Charley, and Mary scurry around Manhattan trying to launch their careers, buzzes with the energy and frustration of being young, gifted, and with something to say, if only someone will listen. The galvanic "Now You Know," in which Mary wises Frank up to the facts of life after his divorce, retains much of its ferocity, even if it suffers from the decision to eliminate the show's intermission: Originally the first-act finale, here it gets roughly cut off in order to cue the next scene.

Still, there's little getting around the fact that Merrily We Roll Along, for all its inside showbiz wisecracks and veneer of cynicism, is overwrought to the point of soap opera. Indeed, the book often plays like one of Jacqueline Susann's tinsel-and-tears accounts of the awfulness of penthouse-and-champagne lives. A Hollywood party on Frank's patio descends into a catfight and fisticuffs; he even gets a cocktail thrown in his face. The number "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," in which Charley, fed up with Frank's money-lust, denounces him on a television talk show, has the unintended effect of making Charley look like a lunatic. (Why does no one cut to a commercial?) A finger-wagging morality infects the narrative: It's not enough for Frank to break up the marriage of Joe, his producer, and Gussie, the leading lady of his first hit; we have to see Joe hit the skids, calling from a pay phone to beg for a financial handout. And the show weirdly portrays writing Broadway musicals as the noblest of vocations, while insisting that filmmaking necessarily means becoming morally enslaved in the fleshpots of Hollywood.

In most productions, these problems are obscured by the glorious score, which includes the restless, exciting title tune, the heartrending ballads "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By," and much besides. This production, like Fiasco's revival of Into the Woods, is -- with the exception of Emily Young, who plays Gussie -- largely inhabited by actors with no real musical theatre skills. Even when their voices are on pitch, they seem to have few ideas about phrasing, breath control, or how to shape a number. Manu Narayan, as Charley, so oversells "Franklin Shepard, Inc." that one wonders why he isn't escorted out of the studio. Similarly, Brittany Bradford, as Beth, spits out "Not a Day Goes By" with such fury that any musical values are lost. (Overall, there's far too much unpleasant belting.) Sondheim has often commented that he prefers actors who sing rather than singers who act, and the production did engage a singing consultant, a fact that speaks volumes. (Lorin Lattaro's choreography is most assuredly conceived for actors who move but only just.) With a show marked by such a yawning gulf between the quality of book and score, it's best not to scant the latter.

Indeed, under Noah Brody's broad play-to-the-rafters direction, the cast often seems lumbered by the shortcomings of Furth's writing. (Brody does pace the scenic changes with amusing bits of rewind staging to signal that the action is moving back in time.) If Ben Steinfeld is vocally underqualified as Frank, he does convey the character's lost-soul qualities, especially his people-pleasing compulsion, which gets him into no end of trouble; still, it's never really clear why Frank is so beloved that Charley and Mary can never get over their perceived betrayals at his hands. Jessie Austrian wisecracks with aplomb as Mary, but she can't bring added dimension to a character who, as conceived, is mawkish and pathetic. (Having landed on the best-seller list, she basically turns into a drunken caricature of Pauline Kael, largely because Frank won't give her a tumble -- indeed, he has no idea that she yearns for him. Somebody needs to tell her to snap out of it.) Narayan's Charley doesn't avoid the trap of being a nudge; he is so busy lecturing Frank, it's no wonder they stop being friends. Bradford struggles with the underwritten role of Beth, and she isn't helped by a new scene that makes her out to be a grasping scold -- no wonder he is so driven to make money! -- but she amuses as an unflappable TV host. Paul L. Coffey, as Joe, is eerily like Jason Alexander, who created the role, which is all to the good, and Young brings some snap to the role of the manipulative Gussie.

Derek McLane has supplied one of his Cornell box sets, filled with props from different eras. Indeed, it looks like a large room at Manhattan Mini-Storage loaded with shelves of lamps, radios, television, and other objects accrued over several decades. The upstage wall, styled as the doors of a loading dock, open to reveal a lurid California sunset and a starry New York sky, among other looks. Other touches include "applause" and "on air" signs, a makeup table, and -- a lovely grace note -- an electric sign for the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon), where Merrily originally opened. The costumes, by Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton, constitute an intensive study of changing fashions across a quarter century; the designers have come up with a nifty effect in which the bloated-looking Mary is, in a dance sequence, stripped of several layers of clothing, taking her back to her younger, svelter self. Christopher Akerlind gets more varied looks using a primarily white palette than any other lighting designer I can think of, a knack he demonstrates here. Peter Hylenski's sound design -- both effects and reinforcement -- are typically tip-top.

It says something that a show that failed so ignominiously the first time out continues to be revived so regularly, in contrast to, say, Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim's other major flop, which has had comparatively few takers. (The website Ovrtur.com lists at least twenty major revivals of Merrily in New York, London, and various resident theatres.) This is, in part, I think, because by the time we get to the finale, "Our Time," in which the young Charley, Frank, and Mary lay out their plans to conquer the world, even a bad production of Merrily can touch one's heart. It is a score that must be heard, and Sondheim fans (myself included) will forever be moths to the flame. Neophytes would be well advised to wait for a revival with more solid musical values. They probably won't have to wait long: There always seems to be another revision in the pipeline. -- David Barbour

(26 February 2019)

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