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Judging by their track record at the time — which included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd — composer Stephen Sondheim and producer-director Harold Prince couldn’t lose. So anticipation was high when their next collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theater in fall 1981. But the story of three best friends who hit it big in show business, told backward from jaundiced mid-life to starry-eyed youth, left audiences bored and confused. Not helping was a cast aged 16 to 25 playing characters in mid-life. Panned by critics, the show closed after only 16 performances, but went on to gain an appreciative following through its cast recording and subsequent retooled productions.
The good news is the new Los Angeles revival, directed by Michael Arden (Spring Awakening), is in no way confusing and employs age-appropriate actors. The bad news is some of the problems that have plagued the show since the beginning still remain.
Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily We Roll Along premiered 35 years ago with a cast of unknowns at the time, including Jason Alexander and actor-turned-director Lonny Price, whose new documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, chronicles the making of the play and the legacy for its original cast. In the end, Sondheim and Prince never worked together again.
In a strange irony, the same fate befalls two of the show’s three principals, Kringas, played by Wayne Brady, and his songwriting partner, Franklin Shepard, played by Aaron Lazar (The Light in the Piazza). When we first meet them in 1976, they’re not on speaking terms. In fact, Kringas is absent, stewing in New York while Shepard and friends are toasting the success of his new movie at his Bel-Air home. Over-celebrating with him is the third leg of the trio, Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino). She has always had a thing for Shepard, now on his second wife, Gussie (Saycon Sengbloh), a Broadway diva who’s angry with him on account of his girlfriend.
Flashing back two years to 1974, we see the origins of the split between Shepard and Kringas in the playful “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” sung by Kringas during a talk show in which he laments his partner’s pursuit of commercial projects rather than the artistic material that formed the basis of their collaboration. By the time we rewind to 1968, we get a refrain of the central trio’s “Old Friends,” a charming song heard earlier. But without the proper groundwork, their bond feels inauthentic no matter how much they sing about it, and their estrangement carries little emotional heft.
The problem has less to do with this production than with George Furth’s book. Shepard stands at the center of the trio, brilliant, so we’re told, but also selfish, petty and undisciplined. With so little background on him, the audience is forced to accept him at unflattering, superficial face value. With the book’s backward structure, the foundational work for the story and characters is meant to reveal itself in portions. But backward or forward, there’s just not enough there for the audience to care.
We’re told Shepard is consumed with dealmaking and money, but he appears only mildly engaged in the business side of things and even less so in the creative. In fact, most of his energy seems dedicated to women who are not his wife, like when he sings “Growing Up” with Gussie. Lazar demonstrates a strong, trained voice, but Sengbloh (seen on Broadway in Hair, Motown and Fela!) is the staggering powerhouse here and in later songs like “Act Two Opening.” Likewise, Whitney Bashor as Shepard’s first wife, Beth, belts out “Not a Day Goes By” with a resonant pathos befitting her cruelly treated character.
Even crueler is the least developed leg of the trio, Mary, a writer consumed by her lifelong affection for Shepard, which she drowns in liquor. Vivino owns the spotlight in her solo, “Like It Was,” but beyond that and a few zingers she is given practically nothing to do except provide an occasional update on her writing career.
Arden’s directing is polished when it comes to blocking scenes on Dane Laffrey’s backstage set, which is lined with vanity mirrors right and left, and topped with a low-hanging lighting grid. Eamon Foley’s limited choreography helps energize some of the more tedious passages, but director and cast seem to struggle with the notoriously problematic material.
The backward structure employed by Kaufman and Hart turned a musical paradigm on its head — bright-eyed kids come to the big city, face impossible odds in showbiz and persevere to find fame and fortune. Here, the premise is the same, only they wind up miserable, which didn’t work in 1981. And while the faithful insist there’s a great show in there somewhere, pointing up the undeniable merits of the score, even with the current production, Merrily We Roll Along remains a conundrum waiting to be cracked.
Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Whitney Bashor, Wayne Brady, Aaron Lazar, Saycon Sengbloh, Amir Talai, Donna Vivino, Eric B. Anthony, Sandy Bainum, Melody Butiu, Doran Butler, Max Chucker, Sarah Daniels, Kevin Patrick Doherty, Laura Dickinson, Rachael Ferrera, Jennifer Foster, Travis Leland, Lyle Colby Mackston, Brent Schindele, Maximus Brandon Verso
Director: Michael Arden
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Set & costume designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting designer: Travis Hagenbuch
Sound designer: Dean Moses Schreier
Musical director: Adam Wachter
Choreographer: Eamon Foley
Presented by: The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in association with Lauren B. Leichtman, Arthur Levine Family Foundation, Montage Beverly Hills
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