BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
The short-lived Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981 revealed a terrific Stephen Sondheim score, a troublesome script and a terribly messy staging.
The Encores! concert version of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which opened Wednesday at New York City Center, presents a terrific Sondheim score, a somewhat revised script and a fairly able staging.
Even with these improvements, the musical is challenging for anyone to appreciate on a first viewing. Drawn from a Kaufman & Hart play, George Furth’s book traces 20 years in the lives of three friends but does so by moving backwards in time.
When the show begins in 1976, middle-aged Frank is a former Broadway composer who has deserted music to be a crass movie producer. His former collaborator, Charlie, is an acclaimed playwright now bitterly estranged from Frank. Their chum Mary – hopelessly in love with Frank – enjoyed success as a novelist but has since become a lonely drunk.
In reverse chronology, the story reveals their various milestones – break-ups, marriages, conflicts, successes, early struggles – until concluding in 1957 when the three first meet each other on a rooftop as they await the wonder of watching Sputnik streak across the sky. Knowing as we do how their entwined lives will twist and turn out, their youthful hopefulness is poignant.
The problem with the libretto is that much of the story – especially the first act – is miserable in spirits while the chronology is somewhat hard to follow initially. Once the entire arc of the story is understood, then the musical’s bittersweet beauty and complexity can be enjoyed on subsequent viewings.
So, unlike so many things in life, “Merrily We Roll Along” is better the second time around. The score’s interwoven melodies are cunningly composed and often haunting, featuring such breakout songs as the burning “Not a Day Goes By” (fervently sung here by Betsy Wolfe as Frank’s first wife) and the affable “Old Friends.” My favorite always has been the rueful “Like It Was.”
Fortunately, many viewers attending the Encores! production probably will be familiar with the show. As one who saw both the original and the York Theatre’s lovely revival in 1994, it seems to me that this latest version might be over-fixed. The predatory diva Gussie – Frank’s second wife – has been amplified and while Elizabeth Stanley adeptly untangles her coils, the lady’s extra presence weights down the plot.
Directed by James Lapine, the elaborately-staged concert features a multitude of still and moving background images by Wendall K. Harrington that visually track and illustrate the passing years. Ken Billington’s lighting helps to focus audience attention. Possibly to accommodate first-time viewers, Lapine paces the production rather slowly to the point of occasional sluggishness.
The onstage 24-member orchestra conducted by Rob Berman intermittently sounded sour in the brass, and Thursday night’s performance was marred several times by crunchy amplification feedbacks.
The leading players are capable if not especially charismatic. Colin Donnell gives Frank a strong, clean voice and likeability. Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays the neurotic Charlie as a surprisingly well-grounded fellow. Celia Keenan-Bolger is far more believable when incarnating Mary’s younger self than her boozy middle age. The trio is at their best and brightest during the exuberant “Opening Doors” sequence. The ensemble members do nicely by their passing characters and in their harmonic mode.
For all of its pensive charms, “Merrily We Go Along” is a musical best enjoyed by Sondheim buffs than the show-going public at large. It probably will never be a commercial money-maker, but as we learn from observing how Frank’s art-versus-commerce life plays out, money isn’t everything.
“Merrily We Roll Along” continues through Feb. 18 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.