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Merrily We Roll Along

City Center Encores! offers an extremely satisfying version of Stephen Sondheim's musical that charts the course of three friends backwards in time. logo
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell,
and Lin-Manuel Miranda in
Merrily We Roll Along
(© Joan Marcus)
There's a chill of excitement to be had when Rob Berman strikes up The Encores! Orchestra for the overture to Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along, running through February 19 at New York City Center. Not only does the 23-piece band sound terrific, it's also delivering a host of melodies familiar to many audience members -- a curious phenomenon for a show that lasted a mere 16 performances in its original Broadway outing 30 years ago.

As the production moves forward, theatergoers will find that this incarnation of the show, directed by James Lapine, who has also created this "concert adaptation," never completely sustains its ability to deliver similar moments of electrifying excitement. But even so, theatergoers will recognize that this may be the most satisfying that audiences can expect from this historically problematic piece.

One inherent difficulty in the show is its structure, inherited from the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play on which it's based. The musical works backward through time, introducing its hero, Franklin Shepard (Colin Donnell), as he celebrates his first major success in Hollywood as a producer, an accomplishment that has come only after he has turned his back on his long-time collaborator Charley Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The musical then proceeds to show not only how this relationship has devolved, but also Franklin's relationships with good friend Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and his first wife Beth (Betsy Wolfe, who offers a warm and vocally assured performance), who divorces him after he's had an affair with one of his leading ladies, Gussie (Elizabeth Stanley).

Any production of Merrily rests on the production's ability to create and sustain emotional tension and audience involvement as it works not toward a traditional happy ending, but rather happy (and ill-fated) beginnings. Thankfully, in Donnell, the show has a terrific asset. He imbues Frank with an undeniable charisma and a certain sweet wrongheadedness that makes even the character's most egregious decisions somewhat forgivable.

Similarly, Stanley's turn as Gussie expertly balances the character's conniving ways with an over-the-top exuberance that is unquestionably hilarious and infectious. Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda evince terrific chemistry as the show moves to the characters' better times together. And although both Keenan-Bolger and Miranda are sometimes challenged by Sondheim's melodies, they deliver the book scenes with brio, as do Wolfe and Adam Grupper, who delivers a laugh-provoking turn as Gussie's put-upon husband, Joe.

Wendell K. Harrington's projections wittily chart the eras of the characters' lives, as do Ann-Hould Ward's character-rich, but never caricatured, period costumes. Tom Watson supplies some perfectly styled wigs for Keenan-Bolger and Stanley and Ken Billington has created a gorgeously modulating lighting design. Equally important, Jonathan Tunick has tweaked and enhanced his orchestrations, so that audiences certainly sense the clock turning backward.

Even if Merrily We Roll Along obstinately remains a gem-in-the-rough, this production shines brightly enough to warrant, if not demand, attention.

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