|MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG|
How did it happen? How did British director Maria Friedman do what hasn’t been done before: Deliver a triumphant production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s short-lived 1981 Broadway musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” now on stage at New York Theatre Workshop in a sadly limited and sold-out run. The answer comes down a smart but subtle re-examination of the show’s book, trust in the audience’s appreciation of the superb score -- which includes such landmark songs as “Our Time,” “Good Thing Going,” “Not A Day Goes By,” and “Old Friends” – and, above all, perfect casting.
Adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same name, the musical moves backwards in time – here starting in 1976 and telling its 20-year-story in reverse chronology. While an arguably clever idea, the opening scene – a big Hollywood party -- presents two of its protagonists, pompous, adulterous composer-turned-Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard Jr. (Jonathan Groff) and his longtime gal pal, the now-embittered alcoholic Mary Flynn (Lindsay Mendez), at their worst, almost immediately losing the audience’s sympathy.
Moreover, when we meet the third member of this once-inseparable trio, Franklin’s lyricist partner Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), in the next scene, he goes on such an over-the-top rant about Franklin’s “betrayal” – on television no less – that we’re not fully inclined to take his side either. So, should we really care how they all got off track, even if we’re eventually shown they were once much better people? In past productions, that has not usually been the case.
What’s changed here is that Friedman has staged the work (on Soutra Gilmour’s barely changing unit set) as a memory play of sorts, with a deeply troubled Franklin obviously trying to figure out why he’s rich but unhappy by replaying his entire life in his head. Further, when he says, early on, that his biggest mistake was saying “yes” every time he meant to say “no”, it not only sounds sincere coming from Groff (even if the statement is meant to hurt his wife) – it proves to be painfully accurate.
Choosing Groff to portray Franklin proves to be a stroke of genius, and not just because his golden throat does justice to some of Sondheim’s best songs. His undeniable good looks and obvious charm (where we have often gotten smarm) makes it entirely reasonable that Franklin would inwardly believe he always deserved success and therefore ignore its cost.
Moreover, it also makes perfect sense that Franklin would attract the love of not just Mary and Charley, but his two wives, the sweet if naïve Beth (an appealing Katie Rose Clarke) and the manipulative, emotionally stunted Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (the sensational Krystal Joy Brown, who needs a “Dreamgirls” revival ASAP). Even Gussie’s then-husband, the powerful producer Joe Josephson (a touching yet hilarious Reg Rogers) can’t seem to resist Frank’s allure.
But “Merrily” is no one-man show, and this production works splendidly because of Groff’s undeniable chemistry with his main co-stars, each of whom are equally brilliant. Radcliffe nails every aspect of Charley, from his brittle sense of humor to his annoyingly unwavering commitment to “art” to his barely contained disdain (and perhaps envy) of the more pragmatic Franklin. When Charley explodes, in the stunning patter song “Franklin Shepard Inc,” you’re afraid he may literally self-combust. It’s a tour-de-force moment for the one-time Harry Potter.
As good as the men are, Mendez is arguably even better, always making us aware of her unrequited and seemingly unquenchable passion for Frank. Her insecurity is her biggest obstacle, which is why she never really confesses her feelings, and holds her tongue (sort of) as Frank marries Beth and Gussie instead of her, and it frustrates us as much as it does her. One of our most powerful singers and actresses, Mendez raises the roof in Mary’s big number, the sardonic “Now You Know,” and breaks your heart during the poignant “Like It Was.”
Kudos go as well to the multi-talented ensemble, who both consistently sound great and look great (in an array of Gilmour’s fabulous “period” costume) and a nine-piece band that sounds much bigger while executing Jonathan Tunick’s extraordinary arrangements.
Indeed, everyone and everything here is on a roll – one that should hopefully continue when (not if) the show makes it to Broadway.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Sherz Aletaha (Man of La Mancha) as Scotty/Mrs. Spencer/Auditionee, Krystal Joy Brown (Hamilton) as Gussie Carnegie, Katie Rose Clarke (Wicked) as Beth Shepard, Leana Rae Concepcion (Comfort Women) as Newscaster/Waitress/Auditionee, Jonathan Groff (Hamilton) as Franklin Shepard, Carter Harris (“Only Murders in the Building”) as Franklin Shepard Jr. (alternates with Colin Keane), Colin Keane (Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin) as Franklin Shepard Jr. (alternates with Carter Harris), Morgan Kirner (Hello, Dolly! National Tour) as Swing, Corey Mach (Kinky Boots) as Tyler/Make-Up Artist, Lindsay Mendez (Carousel) as Mary Flynn, Daniel Radcliffe (The Lifespan of a Fact) as Charley Kringas, Talia Robinson (Dear Evan Hansen) as Meg Kincaid, Reg Rogers (Tootsie) as Joe Josephson, Amanda Rose (Dear Jane) as Swing, Jamila Sabares-Klemm (Baby) as Dory/Evelyn, Brian Sears (The Book of Mormon) as Newscaster/Photographer/Bunker, Evan Alexander Smith (Little Shop of Horrors) as Swing, Christian Strange (The Butcher Boy) as Ru/Reverend, Koray Tarhan (A Christmas Carol) as Swing, Vishal Vaidya (Love Life) as Jerome, Natalie Wachen (RENT) as KT and Jacob Keith Watson (Carousel) as Terry/Mr. Spencer.
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