Radical editing and canny creativity have distilled the essence of Merrily We Roll Along, resulting in a slick, involving, densely melodic piece of musical theatre.
Having enjoyed success with their 2015 production of Into The Woods, Roundabout Theatre Company has invited Fiasco Theater to collaborate on a second off-Broadway Stephen Sondheim musical, notorious 1981 flop (and yet firm cult favourite) Merrily We Roll Along.
It should be noted at this point that Man in Chair attended the first preview of Merrily We Roll Along, with the offical opening night not due for another five weeks. Therefore, this will be discussion of the new production as it stands and certainly not a formal review.
In the Playbill notes, Fiasco Theater’s co-artistic directors describe consulting with Sondheim on this newly edited version. The creative team also looked back at the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, incorporating some material from the original script into George Furth’s book for the musical.
Performed by just six actors in a single act of 110 minutes, the piece flows with the energy and focus of a movie. In jettisoning the chorus, the most noticeable cut to the score is the removal of the seven “Transitions.” Set in a towering and highly detailed props room, everything the cast needs to perform the show is at their fingertips, with changes happening before our eyes rather than offstage during these transitions.
As fans of the show will now, the story of Merrily We Roll Along is told in reverse. Battling the dual foes of success and artistic integrity, the friendship of composer/film producer Franklin Shepard, lyricist/playwright Charley Kringas and novelist/critic Mary Flynn falls apart. Moving backwards from their estrangement to their success to their idealistic beginnings, the musical is a bittersweet reminder of the high price of achieving one’s dreams.
Alexander Gemignani’s orchestrations and new arrangements keep just enough of the “Transitions” to allow the cute effect of rewinding a scene to go back to the next one. In the cleverest sequence, a series of costumes are peeled from Mary, taking her back to the time before she was an overweight alcoholic.
The streamlined approach gives the feeling that the hits keep coming, as it is never long between each of the glorious songs. The moments where a chorus is still required are covered by the team of six actors, plus some vivid dummies for “The Blob.” Clapping on cue, the theatre audience provides the applause for “It’s A Hit”
Derek McLane’s set design is framed in a gorgeous golden proscenium arch. The shelves filled with props are not all there to be used, but provide extensive visual interest while giving the clear vibe of a “backstage” musical. While there is an improvised feel to the use of props from the shelves, there is a surprisingly high number of large set pieces, most of which are revealed behind two high stage doors. In a clever nod to the original Broadway season, Frank and Charley’s Musical Husbands plays at the Alvin Theatre.
Noah Brady’s direction keeps storytelling clear and compelling, and the stage energy never flags. Multiple roles by the same actor are distinct, and the key characters are vividly drawn. Given the multitude of props on stage, there is actually not as much of a feel of improvisation as there might have been. This is a good point in terms of allowing the audience to simply focus on the show, but it seems something of a missed opportunity given the overall style of the show.
Choreography, by Lorin Latarro, has a showbiz flair, and is tightly performed by the cast of triple threats.
While the original production famously used actors of the final (ie initial) young age of the characters, this version is cast with adults who are a very good fit for the mature age of the characters as they begin the show.
Ben Steinfeld keeps Frank’s internal battle between decency and money bubbling along. His momentary return back to his original age at the end of the show is a powerful one indeed. Manu Narayan keeps Charley the noble Charley interesting, and it is impressive to note that he has already nailed early showstopper “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Jessie Austrian is wonderful as the younger Mary; at this stage, she has not quite found the caustic bitterness of older Mary.
Giving strong, entertaining support are Brittany Bradford (primarily as Frank’s first wife Beth), Paul L. Coffey (primarily as Broadway producer Joe) and Emily Young (primarily as Broadway star Gussie).
Longterm fans of Merrily We Roll Along have every reason to see and enjoy this dynamic version. Newcomers will find the material clearer than may have been the case if they had seen one of the many previous incarnations.
Merrily We Roll Along was reviewed 7.30pm Saturday 12 January 2019 at Laura Pels Theatre, New York.
Photos: Joan Marcus