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Merrily We Roll Along

As if they'd been heeding one of the lyrics found in the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, "Dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dreams," composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist George Furth, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick have revisited the musical repeatedly over their careers. Most recently, the trio -- along with director James Lapine -- returned to the show for City Center's Encores! series last February. Now, PS Classics has released a sumptuous-sounding two-disc cast recording of that production.

It's tough not to fall in love with this superlatively produced disc from the moment that one hears Tunick's revised overture -- played by the 23-piece Encores! orchestra under the assured guidance of music director Rob Berman. Tunick has not only expanded it, but also reconceived it, shrewdly tweaking its already glorious sound. The result is a track that stands proudly alongside such iconic musical theater openings as those found in Gypsy and Sweet Charity.

Tunick's revisions extend throughout the show, helping listeners to more clearly the show's backwards progression through time as three pals find the bonds of their friendship tested over the course of over two decades.

It's not only Tunick's new contributions that make this new album notable. There's also the inclusion of copious amounts of dialogue, which make the experience of listening to the recording akin to seeing the piece unfold in the theater, and the flavorsome performances from the principals, all of whom have the ability to morph from the jaded, embittered souls that their characters have become (and who we meet immediately) to the idealistic youths we first see when the musical reaches its final, poignant moments.

At the show's center is Colin Donnell's exceedingly charismatic performance as Franklin Shepard, the composer torn by his drive for success and the loyalty and love he has for both his friends and family. Nowhere can listeners hear the character's dilemma than in Donnell's delicate rendering of the bittersweet ballad "Growing Up," a tune that Sondheim created for the musical subsequent to its Broadway bow.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell,
and Lin-Manuel Miranda in
Merrily We Roll Along
(© Joan Marcus)
At Donnell's side is Lin-Manuel Miranda's appealing -- and slightly goofy -- portrayal of Charley Kringas, Franklin's friend and collaborator. One of the show's trickiest tunes, the manic patter song "Franklin Shepard, Inc," falls to Miranda, and he gracefully and heartbreakingly delivers the song that unfurls as Charley has a mini-breakdown during a television interview with the man who has so disillusioned him.

Celia Keenan-Bolger proves equally adept in her portrayal of the guys' best friend, Mary, a woman whom audiences meet in the throes of embittered alcoholism. As the show works its way back to happier times for all three, Keenan-Bolger strips away at Mary's hard-as-nails exterior to reveal the character's younger and sweeter self -- which is heard most acutely during "Not a Day Goes By," a tune she shares with Franklin and his new bride, Beth (whom Betsy Wolfe imbues with steeliness that gives way to chipper naiveté as the musical wends its course back through time).

Also notable is Elizabeth Stanley, as Gussie, the brassy star, who, with her producer husband Joe (played with comic panache by Adam Grupper), gives Franklin and Charley their first big break, and also becomes Franklin's second wife. Throughout, Stanley's vocals have a flair that brings to mind the sorts of bigger-than-life stars heard on recordings from musicals from Broadway's Golden Age -- which paradoxically proves refreshing in 2012.

The set comes with a deluxe color booklet that features not only the standard lyrics and synopsis, but also a pair of essays, including one by Tunick about his work on the musical in its original as well as this new, and most likely definitive, incarnation.


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