Review: It's A Flop! It's A Hit! It's A Flop!

Dec. 11, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Merrily We Roll Along," The Wallis Beverly Hills, Dec. 6, 2016

Merrily We Roll Along holds a unique place in the annals of Broadway failures.

After misfiring when it debuted in 1981 (Frank Rich praised the score but called the show a “shambles”) the plucky Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical refused to die. It has enjoyed a long, mostly happy afterlife. Using a reworked book, acclaimed revivals have been mounted in London, New York and at many important U.S. regional theaters.

The play itself still has its detractors. Musical theater fans are of two minds.

There are those obsessed with it. They relish in Sondheim’s melodic score, the barbed cynicism of his lyrics, and Furth’s astringent book about three close friends whose youthful dreams haven’t panned out. They’ve sold out, or given up, or become embittered. Welcome to the real world!

The narrative opens in 1975 and works its way backward in time every few years until at the finale we see the trio in 1957 starting out in life after college, brimming with hope, bursting with optimism and untainted ambition.

Not everyone is comfortable with this plot device. Some viewers can’t make their peace with a story turned inside out. They see it as a failed conceit, a gimmick that doesn’t work. It drives them crazy.

There’s some justification for feeling this way. For one thing, there’s no suspense in the telling. The first scene, set at a glitzy Hollywood party, shows what happened to the trio of friends. One became a movie producer with a string of failed marriages; one published a novel, became a theater critic, and finally an alcoholic; the third did fine. He didn’t allow fame and money to destroy him.

"The result is a production that simmers, but never reaches a full boil."

It’s how they got to this point in their lives that Furth and Sondheim want to show us. That’s the crux of the show. Don’t take my word for it. The first number in the show asks, “How does it happen? How does it disappear? He did you ever get there from here?”

Either you love Merrily We Roll Along or you hate it.

I’m in the first group. I’ve seen two terrific productions: one of the earliest revivals in the late 1980s at the La Jolla Playhouse (Broadway veterans John Rubinstein, Chip Zien and Marin Mazzie starred) and a thrilling 2013 London production (directed by Maria Friedman, who played one of the leads in the first UK production in 1992).

A new version, now playing at The Wallis Beverly Hills through Dec. 18, doesn’t reach the heights of those revivals. This time out director Michael Arden takes a low-key approach. It’s a memory play rather than a full-out Broadway musical, an interpretation that doesn’t sit well with “Merrily’s” sharp candor, its abrasiveness, its inherent theatricality.

The result is a production that simmers, but never reaches a full boil.

That explains why the director dropped Sondheim’s raucous, brassy overture. Instead, the lights come up dimly on a stark, mist-filled stage. The actors wander out one at a time, singing in a dream-like fashion.

Arden maintains this reductive vibe throughout, so much so that even the show’s biggest numbers fail to ignite. It’s not all the fault of the director’s vision. Most of the players are either miscast or not up to the job.

Aaron Lazar is a steady if uncommanding presence as Frank, the dreamer who gave up composing to become a shallow tinsel town hotshot.

Saycon Sengbloh is entirely unconvincing as the glamorous movie star Frank weds, though she has a brief shining moment in her Act Two opening number.

The biggest disappointment of the night is Wayne Brady as Frank’s lyricist partner, Charley Kringas. His big Act One number Franklin Shepard, Inc. is supposed to stop the show cold. In this production, it doesn’t. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

Much better is Donna Vivino in the role of Mary Flynn, the third member of the disillusioned trio. She’s a Broadway belter and tart-tongued comedienne – just what the playwright ordered.

Production credits are minimal. The set is nothing more than a few harshly lighted frames with exposed lighting pipes that would have been hidden had there been actual scenery. And did they have to shine those lights into the audience’s eyes? We know that we’re looking under the skin of these characters, at the soulless, embittered adults they have become. Blinding us from the stage is an unnecessary reminder.

The show has its pleasures nonetheless. Sondheim’s score is one of his best. There are two lovely ballads Not A Day Goes By and Our Time, two extended comedic set pieces, the aforementioned Franklin Shephard, Inc. in the first act and Opening Doors in the second, and a short number that satirizes the Kennedy era presented as if it were in an early 1960s Off-Broadway review. These are terrific songs and worth the price of admission, even if the performers don’t do right by them.

See this production and take from it what you can. It will disappoint, but Furth’s play and Sondheim’s songs and lyrics will amaze.

All right, now you know.

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