WHAT "Merrily We Roll Along"
WHEN | WHERE Through April 7, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO From $99; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Entertaining production revitalizes one of Stephen Sondheim's most problematic musicals.
You’d think a show that closed just two weeks after it opened would have the good graces to simply fade into oblivion. Not so with "Merrily We Roll Along," the 1981 flop by George Furth with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
The wonderfully imperfect musical with some perfectly wonderful songs has invited endless tinkering. James Lapine reworked it for a 1985 production in La Jolla, California, which opened the door for revivals Off-Broadway and all over the country, a couple of London productions and a successful run as part of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim celebration. The musical even had a heavy presence in the 2017 film "Lady Bird."
Finally it seems someone has gotten it close to right. Fiasco, the resident company at the Roundabout Theatre Company, may not have solved all the show's problems, but the innovative company has come up with an entertaining, enjoyable production that revitalizes the bittersweet story of three people who were friends, then partners, then strangers.
Directed by Noah Brody, the show runs in reverse on Derek McLane's impressive set, a warehouse packed with costumes, props and other memorabilia, from which the actors pluck a jacket or a wineglass as needed. One of the most confusing aspects of "Merrily We Roll Along" has been that it starts in 1980 and then works back to 1957. Trimming the cast to a tight ensemble of six fine performers doesn't really help, but supplementing with material from the original source — the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play — does clarify the action.
At the beginning of the show (the end of the story), these old friends are finished: Songwriter Frank (Ben Steinfeld) has abandoned Broadway and his longtime lyricist Charley (Manu Narayan) for a more lucrative life in Hollywood. Their writer friend Mary (Jessie Austrian) has abandoned both of them and the rest of the world for the bottle.
Working back in time, every moment offers a little more insight into the group's disintegration. We see their hits and their failures, we see them party through the decades and we see their relationships fall apart, mostly through the brilliant score that includes standards such as "Old Friends" and "Not a Day Goes By."
In the last scene, the friends meet for the first time, gathered on the rooftop of their city apartment to watch Sputnik fly by and to celebrate the youthful exuberance that is much of the show's message. "Do you realize," Frank asks, "that now we are going to be able to do anything?" We were all there once.