Sondheim's Score Is Expendable in Emotionally Austere Merrily We Roll Along
Everyone thinks they can fix Merrily We Roll Along — not the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, but Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 musical adaptation, which famously flopped 16 performances after opening. It's a curiosity for musical-theater nerds — an experimental piece that explores the development of a friendship backwards from dissolution to formation. It's got a great score, juicy roles, and a tricky book. All directors think they have the solution to make it work, to varying degrees of success.
Fiasco Theater's new production, at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, is Merrily We Roll Along as Frankenstein's Monster. A cohort of Brown MFA grads, Fiasco made a name for itself in 2011 with a clear, beautifully spoken revival of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, and has since gone on to further probe both the Bard of Stratford and the Bard of Broadway. Sondheim was apparently so taken with their relatively unadorned Into the Woods, which Roundabout produced in 2015, that he gave the troupe unprecedented access to his archives so they could experiment on Merrily, a show that hadn't seen a full New York revival since 1994 (it was briefly presented by Encores! in 2012).
This is the fifth professional production of Merrily We Roll Along I've seen, and the most disappointing. It's not really the fault of the text — Fiasco's swift, intermissionless edition of George Furth's book is a strong amalgamation of scenes from the Kaufman and Hart play, the original Broadway production, and subsequent revisals — nor is it Noah Brody's staging, which has some unique flourishes I'd never thought of to show the reverse passage of time. The problems lie with the six-member cast, who don't have the pipes to successfully articulate Sondheim's beautiful melodies, or the acting texture to grab at the emotions.
Merrily introduces us to Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), a musical wunderkind who turns from Broadway composing to Hollywood producing; his neurotic lyricist best friend Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan); and their other best friend Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian), a successful novelist turned powerful critic. As the show begins, Franklin is at the height of his fame in Hollywood, but his longstanding partnership with Charley has withered after a disastrous talk-show appearance. As for Mary, who has harbored a crush on Frank since they met, she has become a self-destructive alcoholic. The rest of the piece moves in reverse chronology to show us how these cynical adults were once younger people with dreams of conquering the world.
Brody, one of Fiasco's three artistic directors (with Austrian and Steinfeld), approaches Merrily as though it were a play with the occasional song. Gone (and heartily missed) is the iconic overture, widely regarded as one of the very best in history, but the new orchestrations and arrangements for an eight-piece band by Alexander Gemignani, son of original Merrily conductor Paul, are on par with Jonathan Tunick's from 1981. Gone are the sung-through transitions in time, here replaced with spoken text and physical "rewinds," cleverly staged by choreographer Lorin Latarro (keep an eye out for the way Mary deconstructs and reconstructs a martini early in the show). Gone are characters like Frank's young son (you are not missed, cloying child actor), as well as the entire ensemble, because this full company numbers six (don't get me started on the paltriness of "The Blob," which is pathetically performed by four actors dancing with medical skeletons in hats). And gone are the beautiful voices that allow Sondheim's extraordinary songs "Growing Up," "Not a Day Goes By," and "Like It Was" to fully take flight.
That's the most disappointing aspect of all. This Merrily prioritizes acting over singing, and it comes at the expense of the score. But even still, not all of the performances are up to the task of sustaining the emotional tension needed for the show to work. Narayan acts the hell out of "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and he creates a great arc for Charley. Paul L. Coffey is particularly good at showing Joe Josephson's devolution from powerful Broadway producer to pathetic schlub. Austrian is a believably acerbic Mary. Alas, Steinfeld is a colorless Frank, while Emily Young, as Frank's second wife, Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie, doesn't seem to understand what being a diva means. Brittany Bradford delivers a sweet but uninvolving take on Frank's ex-wife Beth.
The production isn't about the design, either, even though Derek McLane has built an extraordinarily detailed backstage-at-an-imaginary-theater set. It does not come close to being used to its full potential.
Seeing this emotionally austere production made me wonder if Fiasco Theater was more drawn to the Kaufman and Hart play than the Sondheim-Furth musical. Maybe that 70-year-old drama, with 55 characters, would have provided more opportunities for them to work the magic they displayed in Cymbeline. They had a good thing going, but here, it's going, going, gone.