Old friends: Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor,and Raúl Esparza in Merrily We Roll Along(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Old friends: Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor,
and Raúl Esparza in Merrily We Roll Along
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Opening the second half of the summer-long Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, Merrily We Roll Along is an artistic palette cleanser that offers a starkly different view of composer Stephen Sondheim than was evident in the first three of his shows mounted here.

Originally a critical and commercial flop in New York that ran only sixteen performances, Merrily has been re-tooled and trimmed in several notable stagings over the years at various venues, including Washington's own Signature Theatre and in London (where it won the 2001 Olivier award for best musical). Featuring a scaled-down orchestration by Jonathan Tunick and a versatile and energetic cast under Christopher Ashley's tight direction, the Kennedy Center production displays a Sondheim brimming with emotion and radiating melody.

With a book by George Furth based on an old Kaufman and Hart play of the same title, the bittersweet Merrily We Roll Along includes some of Sondheim's most hummable songs, including "Old Friends," "Not a Day Goes By," and the haunting "Good Thing Going," along with the archetypal, high-energy show tune "Franklin Shepard, Inc." Ashley--who also directed the celebration opener, Sweeney Todd--decided not to use "The Hills of Tomorrow," the song that originally opened and closed the show. He also eliminated the attendant commencement speech scene in which famed Broadway and film composer Franklin Shepard looks back over several decades of his life. Now, the company swings right into the title song as the curtain rises on a party scene at Shepard's Bel-Air home in 1976. Earnestly played by Michael Hayden, Shepard is careworn and cynical even though he is at the peak of a financially brilliant career. As time peels away in reverse, the show takes us backwards through Shepard's relationship with his two closest friends: Charley Kringas, his former lyricist-partner, and Mary Flynn, the gal pal of both men.

Charley is played by Raúl Esparza, fresh off his starring performance in the Sondheim Celebration's Sunday in the Park With George, and two more different characters would be difficult to find. Esparza's Georges Seurat in Sunday was emotionally frozen while Charley is all passion, the heart of the Shepard/Kringas team to Franklin's head. As Mary, Miriam Shor has the difficult task of giving color to an under-written character, the only clues about her being her relationship to her guy buddies and the suggestion that she is secretly in love with Franklin. It's not much to go on, but Shor gives a nicely nuanced performance, starting Mary off as a hard-drinking and creatively stunted drama critic (of course!) in the "present" of 1976 and gradually shedding her emotional baggage to show us that she was once a fresh-faced, idealistic young writer talented enough to pen a best-seller.

The grit belongs to Esparza, however, as Charley is the most volatile of the trio. While his is not a natural singer's voice, Esparza works hard to hit the notes, and he pumps his performance full of substantially more emotion that that of Hayden, whose singing is pretty but somewhat bland and who becomes more puppy-like as he regresses in age.

Moving backward in time is not an easy task, either for the performers or the audience, but it works here. When we first meet Franklin and Mary, they are drowning in bile and not very likable. As time marches in reverse, we meet Charley and see the blow-up between the writing partners that ended their friendship on live television. All three leads, as well as supporting actors Emily Skinner and Adam Heller, convincingly play scenes while offering no hint that their characters know the outcome, having played the chronologically later action just moments before. These people become progressively younger and happier and less encumbered by emotional scar tissue until we see the young trio of Frank, Charley, and Mary on the roof of an apartment building in 1957, watching the night sky for the passing of Sputnik and ready to launch their lives.

Whatever didn't work in New York certainly works here. Under Eric Stern, the dozen musicians--no strings--provide a full, if not lush, sound. (This orchestra is half the size of that used in the original Broadway production.) Derek McLane's sets are spartan but with lots of clever touches. For instance, the infamous live TV interview during which Charley boils over with frustration because of his partner's concentration on business rather than art and belts out "Franklin Shepard, Inc." features a working relic: An ancient TV camera emblazoned with the old NBC "snake" logo transmits a live picture of the action for projection on a full-stage sized backdrop scrim, nicely enhancing the moment.

Michael Hayden, Anastasia Barzee, Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor,Adam Heller, and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Michael Hayden, Anastasia Barzee, Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor,
Adam Heller, and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As songs such as "Not a Day Goes By," "Our Time", and, especially, "Good Thing Going" are reprised at earlier stages of the characters' lives, they seem to be performed with more emotional depth each time, proving that the reverse-time movement of the plot is more than just a theatrical gimmick; it allows the audience to acutely feel the poignancy of idealism lost, of dreams deferred and overshadowed by reality. It's more than a bit unsettling to witness the birth of dreams when you already know how they're going to die. As Gussie, the wife of the Broadway producer Joe Josephson and later (earlier, onstage) Franklin's wife, a zaftig Emily Skinner--wearing what appears to be Ann-Margaret's old hair--provides a brassy counterpoint to Miriam Shor's earnest Mary and to the operatic-voiced Anastasia Barzee as Franklin's first wife, Beth. Skinner, who was in the Sondheim Celebration production of Company, opens Act Two with a brief, bluesy, version of "Good Thing Going" that one wishes were longer.

The 21 cast members, most of whom have been seen and heard in the previous productions of the Sondheim Celebration, are clad in costumes by David C. Wollard. His designs wittily display 1970s excesses in the opening party scene. Oddly, though, Wollard's costumes for the swinging late-'60s segment are muted, while a scene that takes place in 1962 features the Nehru jackets and paisley designs associated with the post-British invasion that occurred later in the decade. The time transitions are handled quickly as the ensemble reprises the title song, accompanied by projections of the descending years and changes of sets. A door here, a window there, and a few sofas and extraneous props are all that's needed, set before a massive and dark cityscape backdrop. (The backdrop for the Bel-Air scene is of an orange sunset with palm trees, of course.)

Sondheim seems to be mocking his detractors with some of the lyrics of the song "Opening Doors," in which Adam Heller as Joe, the decidedly commercial producer, exhorts young Frank and Charley to "give me a melody." There is also a brief audio clip of Frank Sinatra singing "Good Thing Going," as if to point out that America's greatest interpreter of popular music found Sondheim's work to be sufficiently melodic for his high standards.