Merrily We Roll Along

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Photo: MurphyMade Review
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,” which is exactly what’s now on stage at The Hudson Theatre (close to intact from last year’s production at New York Theatre Workshop).

The answer comes down Friedman’s smart but subtle re-examination of the show’s book, her 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, incredibly 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, 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, shortly afterwards, we meet the third member of this once-inseparable trio, Franklin’s lyricist partner Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), 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, why should we really care how they all got off track, even if we’re eventually shown they were once much better people? What’s different here from the past productions I’ve seen is that Friedman has staged the work (on Soutra Gilmour’s cleverly 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.

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 make it entirely reasonable that Franklin would inwardly believe he always deserved success and therefore ignores its cost to both himself and others, over and over again.

Indeed, when he says, early on, that his biggest mistake was saying “yes” every time he meant to say “no” as a rebuke to his second wife, the manipulative Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (a sensational Krystal Joy Brown), we don’t yet realize it will prove to be painfully accurate.

Moreover, it also makes perfect sense that Franklin would attract the love of not just Mary and Charley and Gussie, but also his first wife, the sweet if naïve Beth (an appealing Katie Rose Clarke). Even Gussie’s previous husband, the powerful producer Joe Josephson (a touching yet hilarious Reg Rogers) can’t seem to resist Frank’s allure.

But “Merrily” is not a one-man show, and this production works so splendidly because Groff’s two main co-stars 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 and look great in an array of Gilmour’s fabulous “period” costumes and a superb band (perched atop Gilmour’s set), who stunningly execute Jonathan Tunick’s extraordinary arrangements.

So don’t let another day go by without grabbing tickets to this must-see production!
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 10/10/2023
Closing 7/7/2024

Theatre Info
Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036