The 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” with its score by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, is challenging to get right. Its original Broadway run lasted only 16 performances. The bitterness of how lives of the protagonists work out in contrast to their young hopes, the gambit of telling the story going back in time step by step, and the need to make the piece amusing and entertaining despite the ultimate sadness confront anyone daring to attempt the staging. The Fiasco Theater’s new revival presented by Roundabout Theatre Company meets the challenge and basically succeeds, even though this is a pared down version that still could stand more editing. It has been deftly re-imagined in the direction by Noah Brody and with new orchestrations and arrangements by Alexander Gemignani.
We get the anger, sadness and disappointment at the outset, and then in stages realize the evaporation of hopes and dreams as the musical goes back in time. An excellent cast is sufficiently appealing to make one care for the characters. In the process we get the Sondheim songs rendered strongly as they advance the plot and characterizations. The revival is enjoyable to watch, as well as reminding us of how creative this Sondheim work is despite the book’s complexity. (The musical is based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and some dialogue from their play has been incorporated into the current version.)
I last saw “Merrily We Roll Along” in concert form staged by New York City Center Encores! and was delighted in how good it was. Encores! got it right too, with a first rate cast that included the then less-known Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley. In the Fiasco Theater revival, Charley is played by Manu Narayan, who has a dynamic voice. He writes the lyrics to music supplied by his partner Frank, passionately portrayed by excellent Ben Steinfeld. Nastiness has set in, as Frank has opted for moviemaking success in contrast to their earlier palsy compatibility and dreams.
Paul L. Coffey plays producer Joe (in addition to handling two other roles). Jessie Austrian is outstanding as Mary, the novelist in the group seen at the outset as a hostile lush. Brittany Bradford is Beth, the wife whom Frank dumps for Emily Young as ambitious actress Gussie.
As you see, Sondheim and Furth knew their show business ups and downs in developing this potpourri of anxieties, betrayal, temporary success but ultimate personal misery. As those familiar with the show know, there are two especially memorable numbers. One is “Old Friends,” given new voice here by Mary, Frank and Charley. The other is the haunting “Not a Day Goes By,” soloed by Beth, and then by Beth, Frank and Mary. There is plenty of energy in other numbers not as well known, some of them very funny.
By the time we get to the final scene, a rooftop in 1957 when Frank, Charley and Mary are just getting acquainted and with their lives ahead of them optimistically singing “Our Time,” the musical has made its point—repeatedly.
Derek McLane’s set is fascinating--a stage cluttered floor to ceiling display of ornaments, knick-knacks and assorted evidence of show biz mementos. The costume design of Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton adds period color, and at one point includes an especially amusing and sudden switch for Austrian as Mary. At the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed February 22, 2019.