The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: NYTW’s Merrily We Roll Along
It was one of the most coveted tickets to be found over the past few months in NYC. And I felt ever so fortunate to know that one was waiting for me, even if I had to wait until early January to be able to utilize it. But there was no surprise there that everyone wanted to see this show. With a cast like the one assembled, duking it out in one of Stephen Sondheim’s classics at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop in downtown NYC, the buzz was always going to be big. Merrily We Roll Along was primed for this. It was a legendary Broadway failure back in 1981 when the esteemed director Hal Prince somehow stumbled in reverse, unable to find a way through the rewinding of the engagement of three old friends. The Broadway musical shockingly closed after 16 performances and 52 previews that first go-round. People keep trying though, year after year, to get it right, and somehow that rightness has evaded all. Maybe not completely.
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical throws it all in reverse, in an attempt to see what exists if we could stand and examine time differently, win or lose. I’ve seen a couple of attempts at perfecting their complex creation, to different levels of success. The one in 2019 by Fiasco Theater, with Roundabout solidly behind, was dizzily fun but problematic. It tampered confidently with the difficult but brilliant show, yet somehow it ended up leaving it just as troublesome as it was before.
My first real experience with this complex show was the 2012 production at NYCC Encores! starring Lin Manuel Miranda (Charley), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mary), and Colin Donnell (Franklin). I loved the confusion and embraced the sentimentality and passion, but it also remained just out of reach. That production was followed closely by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory‘s West End transfer in 2013 starring the glorious and delicious Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley and directed by Maria Friedman. Watching it on the big movie screen here in NYC, I was engulfed in delight (even though my friend thought the American accents were horrendous). That production won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. It felt pretty darn close to perfect, or at least the best I had seen. So far.
But now, the same director, Maria Friedman (Old Vic’s High Society), has resurrected her production, unleashing the same formula that elevated that Menier Chocolate Factory and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company production to such grand heights. She somehow found that mysterious key to make this rewinding work, probably better than anyone has done before. Driving it backwards down the road with a wise assurance. And with this version’s celebrated stars at the wheel; Jonathan Groff (Broadway’s Hamilton; Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors), Daniel Radcliffe (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact; Old Vic’s Endgame), and Lindsay Mendez (Broadway’s Carousel; RTC’s Significant Others) putting it all together in their disillusioned manner, the choices made solidify the experience, finding acute understanding in their backward momentum.
Based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the same name, Merrily tries to find an understanding of humanity in the rearview mirror. The inspection begins at a party in Los Angeles, given by the star producer and composer, Frank, played impossibly strong by Groff, and attended by his old friend and novelist, Mary, impeccably portrayed by Mendez. The one that is missing is Charley, a playwright, played perfectly by Radcliffe, and it’s clear that his absence is heavily felt by those two; by the way Mary drinks and acts, and the way Frank is pretending to be more. It’s clear something is amiss. But what actually happened to this trio of old friends? And just as that question begins to swirl up inside the glittering party, the story starts to rewind, cueing us to the reversal of years, sung and pointed out by an ensemble cast that just couldn’t be better if it tried.
Moment by moment, year behind year, Merrily unpacks in reverse, taking us through the intertwined lives of these three, until we find them coming together on a Manhattan rooftop in 1957, filled with an openness and eagerness that makes everything else that we saw before, and what lies ahead, make emotional sense. The show speaks in symbols and ideas, some that aren’t so clear earlier in the show, but make more sense later on when we witness what came before. Groff’s reprise of “Not a Day Goes By“, sung so beautifully with Mendez, is a case in point, taking a song we heard already from Beth (Clarke) later on in life, but the meaning has shifted because we know what will come to pass. The music and its delivery are impeccable, thanks to spectacular work by the small orchestra, led by music director Alvin Hough, Jr. (Broadway’s Tina), with music supervision by Catherine Jayes (Broadway’s The Color Purple) and orchestrations by Sondheim’s orchestrator of choice, Jonathan Tunick (CSC’s Pacific Overtures; NT’s Follies). And the production never fails itself, scene after scene, song after song, finding purpose in the timely rewind and musical perfection in its delivery.
Overflowing inside Frank’s crisp universe, made sharp and clear by set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour (West End/Broadway’s Betrayal), Merrily gives each friend an unthinkably strong and decisive moment to shine. Mendez might possibly be the best on that stage, delivering forth the strong glue that holds this puzzle together. Her “Now You Know” force is electric here, that is until Radcliffe is given the chance to deliver his moment, the devastatingly good “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” with exquisite clarity and heartfelt anger that registers. Groff’s boyish charm adds a layer of connectivity to Frank’s foul formulation that makes him something more complex, especially with that strong emotive voice of his giving a more human edge than one thought might be possible. But the three of them together, singing “Bobby and Jackie and Jack“, “Opening Doors“, and “Our Time” is what this show is really all about, and in that engagement, we are fulfilled. And in Friedman’s world, everyone on that stage gets a similar moment to sparkle and shift the time backward, especially Krystal Joy Brown (Broadway’s Big Fish) as Gussie Carnegie, Reg Rogers (Broadway’s Tootsie) as Joe Josephson, and Katie Rose Clarke (Broadway’s Allegiance) as Beth Shepard.
It is always the case, when looking back at our lives, that we can unpack clarity in our actions and our mistakes. “How did you get to be here?” Sondheim asks, and with that question mark held strong in Friedman’s wise hands, everything comes together and finds symmetry and connection. This NYTW production of Merrily We Roll Along, which will have its first Broadway revival in the fall of 2023, delivers, in reverse, that understanding and strong emotionality that failed in the original Broadway production. It has been cleaned up, refocused, and finally comes together. And I can’t wait to have another round of it later this year. You should probably make a plan now, and not wait to look back in time, and think, I should have when I could have.
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