a loving and intimate revival

The late composer Stephen Sondheim’s biggest career flop has turned out to be one of the best musicals of the theater season – just 41 years after it premiered.

Downtown at New York Theater Workshop, the endearing and intimate revival of his “Merrily We Roll Along,” which opened Monday night, lifts audience spirits even during a show that, as written, is a bitter cautionary tale about how that Life gets worse with age.

theater criticism

Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street.

It’s the opposite of most schlocks squatting on Broadway these days. This musical is intelligent, hilarious, human, heartfelt and lively. It makes you – gasp – think. And it has the electricity of a major event, as we’re grabbed and gutted by the short-circuited existences of its main characters.

Cheerful? Yes, exactly. The sad show depicts a friendship unraveling backwards – portrayed by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez – in “memento” style. You usually end up walking out depressed and pensive, whispering about the piece’s structural flaws.

Fans adore the scores, with great songs like “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Going,” and “Old Friends,” but with Sondheim’s music awkwardly paired with George Furth’s retro and oddly worded book, productions usually get out of hand Rails.

But I felt different by the end of this “Merrily,” with no-frills direction by Maria Friedman and a mid-century modern set by Soutra Gilmour.

The friendship between Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), Frank (Jonathan Groff) and Mary (Lindsay Mendez) falls apart "We roll along happily."
Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), Frank (Jonathan Groff) and Mary (Lindsay Mendez)’s friendship crumbles in Merrily We Roll Along.

When Groff, who sensationally plays a famous composer named Franklin Shepard, stares at the audience in the last frame of this production, he is middle-aged again with his life in shambles. At that moment you really think he’s changed and that these three formerly inseparable New York pals can make it happen; that our experience of seeing the show was Frank’s own all-important aha moment. A notoriously unfulfilling show suddenly gratifies.

But it’s not just a striking image that makes “Merrily” work, it’s also a stunning trio. The old friends are fabulously played by Groff, Radcliffe and Mendez, who never exaggerate a millisecond of a story that can easily become mired in showbiz cliches and 1970s kitsch. Everything is grounded and real here.

Frank's mid-century modern home becomes a variety of settings for a story that spans three decades.
Frank’s mid-century modern home becomes a variety of settings for a story that spans three decades.

“Merrily” begins in the 1970s at a party at Franklin’s Los Angeles home attended by his wife, mistress and old friend Mary (Mendez), alongside the usual Hollywood crowd. Mary is a theater critic and a raging alcoholic (thanks, folks) who causes a scene by loudly accusing Frank of guilt over his estrangement from her sidekick and his lyricist, Charley (Radcliffe).

And then we rewind to the 1960s. Charley blows up Frank during a national television interview, and Radcliffe sings the song “Franklin Shepard Inc.”, which is about catching a man and accuses his creative partner of selling himself for money. The British actor delivers one of his warmest and most honest performances yet, delving deeper than How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Lieutenant of Inishmore allowed him to. The guy breaks your heart. Incidentally, Radcliffe has grown into such a consistently great stage actor that we needn’t mention his wand-wielding past.

Amidst the turmoil of broken marriages and discord, Mary, who dreams of being a writer, is the workhorse trying to keep her family together. Mendez is exquisite in the role of offset. A less skilled actress transforms the older, alcoholic Mary into an old witch from “Into the Woods”. Mendez is absolutely real and therefore devastating.

The cast of "We roll along happily."
In Act 2, we witness the character’s teenage career milestones.
Johanna Marcus

The same goes for Katie Rose Clarke as Beth, Frank’s first wife, who wails “Not a day goes by” when her husband’s skyrocketing fame causes him to walk away from their marriage. As his new wife, Gussie, Krystal Joy Brown is twisted and a master manipulator. And as he was in Tootsie, Reg Rogers is a perfect embodiment of casting couch smarm as Broadway producer Joe.

The show’s second act is always less compelling than the first because the triad’s teenage career milestones — their first Broadway hit, an early downtown revue, terrible day jobs — have less panache than the relationship dramas. What makes these staccato events successful here is that these three actors, all in their thirties, effectively span their characters’ states of being at the beginning and end. When they get their first performance, they radiate a tangibly lived-in euphoria that will remind every ticket buyer of their own.

Has “Merily” finally been fixed? Not really, and it never will be. But its history-making troubles have become not only part of its lore, but also a messy asset in our grim era of mechanical, assembly-line, movie-studio-produced musicals. “Merrily” is a touching oddball that hits you emotionally hard even when it misses creatively. Here it is. How is it? Damn few.

https://nypost.com/2022/12/12/merrily-we-roll-along-review-a-lovable-and-intimate-revival/ a loving and intimate revival

Emma Bowman

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