'Merrily We Roll Along': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
From left: Manu Narayan, Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld in 'Merrily We Roll Along'
The cult 1981 flop gets a brisk but vocally uneven and emotionally distant revival.
4/14/2019

After its hit revival of 'Into the Woods,' New York's Fiasco company strips down another beloved Stephen Sondheim musical with a tricky structure.

The 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along is one of the most successful flops of all time: Left for dead at its creation, it is now revived, in one shape or another, more often than many hits. A new off-Broadway staging from Fiasco Theater, a troupe in residence at the Roundabout Theatre Company, is but the latest effort to crack the Merrily code. It only half-works, but don’t fret: There will be other attempts soon enough.

The piece, which uses the evolving relationship of three friends to paint a bittersweet portrait of compromised artistic ideals, has bedeviled many over the years, starting with the original creative team: composer Stephen Sondheim, director Harold Prince and book writer George Furth. Not a shabby lineup, with the first two then fresh off the success of Sweeney Todd. And yet even they couldn't make the show land: It ran for a month of previews and 16 regular performances, and stands out as one of Sondheim and Prince's biggest commercial failures.

This did not condemn Merrily to the dustheap, however — because, duh, almost nothing by Sondheim ends up there, and because the score boasted such soon-to-be-standards as "Old Friends" and "Not a Day Goes By."

The process of rehabilitation has accelerated over the past decade, and has included a concert production co-starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger as part of the 2012 Encores! season, a 2013 Menier Chocolate Factory effort that transferred to the West End and a Los Angeles revival with Wayne Brady in 2016. That same year, the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by original castmember Lonny Price, detailed the show's creation and whatever happened to its young actors, further adding to the mystique that has crusted up around Merrily.

Fiasco has made its name with pared-down productions that make the most of small casts and stagecraft ingenuity, but can also lapse into wink-wink cutesiness. The work is usually competent but not all that trenchant. The company’s breakout production, in 2011, was a Cymbeline done with just six multitasking actors, a few crates and strategically deployed sheets. A popular take on Into the Woods with a pianist, a lot of ropes and 10 actors handling a variety of instruments ran at the Roundabout in 2015, and sowed the seed for this new Sondheim outing.

Most people blame Merrily's cool initial reception on its structure, borrowed from the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart 1934 play of the same title. We meet Frank (Ben Steinfeld), Mary (Jessie Austrian) and Charley (Manu Narayan) in 1980, when they are in their early 40s and in very different positions in life — Frank a successful producer of Hollywood schlock, Mary a critic flaunting her alcoholic cynicism, Charley a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Then the show progressively works its way back to 1957, when the trio met and bonded over their youthful dream of "trying to change the world."

This approach may have thrown audiences in 1981, but years of chronology-defying prestige TV series and incomprehensible Christopher Nolan timelines have accustomed us to funky narratives.

The best that can be said about Noah Brody's production is that it's very efficient, running a tight 105 minutes. For this version, Fiasco looked at the 1930s source play, four versions of the Merrily scripts and archival material provided by Sondheim himself.

The result is very smooth and the reverse narration works very well: It's fun to watch Frank's relationship with Gussie (Emily Young) evolve in reverse from failed marriage to newlywed bliss to passionate illicit affair.

A few bits of prime Fiasco resourcefulness also pop up here and there. Austrian's Mary, for instance, starts off as a frumpy, overweight matron, then sheds weight (i.e., layers of clothing) as she gets younger and younger. The actors pull out accessories and costumes from racks on the sides of the stage — Derek McLane’s opulent set suggests a mix of dressing room and storage room, with a marquee for the Alvin Theater (home of the original Merrily) looming down.

Unfortunately, the performances are not always up to snuff. As Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, Young was the standout in Into the Woods, and she repeats that feat here, giving Gussie an acerbic shine and effortlessly precise comic zing. She also does justice to the songs and their new orchestrations for an eight-piece band, courtesy of music director Alexander Gemignani — whose father, Paul, was music director of the original Broadway production (time really is on a loop when it comes to Merrily). Brittany Bradford is also very good as Frank's first wife, Beth, delivering a finely wrought, quietly heartbreaking "Not a Day Goes By."

Steinfeld and Narayan are adequate at best. The latter (seen recently on Broadway in My Fair Lady) gets through the epic "Franklin Shepard, Inc." but never elevates it to the showstopping heights the number could, should reach. More problematic is Austrian, who somehow manages to make her character seem disposable — Mary now tags along, never feeling central to the action. We never get a sense, for instance, that she has long harbored one-way feelings for Frank. If that's a deliberate decision to de-emphasize this aspect of the plot, it's one that saps the show of much of its tension.

By the end, which is the beginning, this neat, tidy Merrily feels merely like a stopgap production as we await the inevitable next staging of this gloriously messy show.

Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Jessie Austrian, Brittany Bradford, Paul L. Coffey, Manu Narayan, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Noah Brody
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designers: Paloma Young, Ashley Rose Horton

Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Music director and orchestrator: Alexander Gemignani
Presented by: Roundabout Theatre Company