Another attempt to ‘fix’ Sondheim’s unsuccessful 1981 musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ fails

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Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ()
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Lots of people have taken a stab at fixing the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which closed after just 16 performances back in 1981.

Numbers are added and dropped, characters are moved into or out of the spotlight, and the entire cast gets older or younger by a good 20 years.

George Furth's crudely drawn book for the original had been based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. (That play, incidentally, was also a flop.) Furth follows three friends—composer Franklin Shepard, lyricist Charlie Kringas, and novelist Mary Flynn—backward in time from their angst-ridden middle age to their starry-eyed youth.

The original production, directed by Hal Prince, employed a cast of twentysomethings to lecture their elders about letting go of their dreams. Some subsequent productions used older actors ruefully examining their own lives.

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Here, director James Lapine splits the difference, with actors mostly in their 30s simultaneously looking forward and back. It's not the most successful approach, as the actors are almost always playing younger or older. The show's point of view is muddled, which undercuts an ending that should be heartbreaking.

Lapine is one of the few directors who has tackled this problematic show twice, including the current revival in New York City Center's Encores! series. This damp, dreary production is pretty much a carbon copy of the version Lapine mounted in La Jolla back in 1985. "The Hills of Tomorrow," which opened and closed the original Broadway production, is gone, "Rich and Happy" is replaced by "That Frank," and "Growing Up" is added to both acts.

These are not improvements. Without "The Hills of Tomorrow," the show launches into the cautionary "Merrily We Roll Along" without explaining how or why the characters have gone "so far off the track." Without context it seems superfluous—not what you want in a title number. And the plodding "Growing Up" emphasizes a secondary character when we should be getting to know the leads.

The reverse chronology has always confused audiences, which Lapine tries to solve with a scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings from their lives that is projected onto the stage during the overture. It's a big mistake, as Lapine gives away the entire plot before a line of dialog is spoken. Projection designer Wendall K. Harrington's images are so visually arresting, especially photos that place the actors in civil rights marches or on talk shows next to Johnny Carson, that they distract from the action onstage.

Not that there's much to hold your attention. The City Center stage is unusually shallow because of the presence of the orchestra, but surely Lapine could have done something more interesting than planting his characters side by side. Many of the musical numbers look like they're waiting to be choreographed. Dan Knechtges, who brought such effervescence to Lysistrata Jones and Xanadu, only gets to show his cheeky side with a jaunty Irish jig in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack."

The cast, which seems like a dream team on paper, is a disappointment. Colin Donnell (so suave in Anything Goes) is a bit of a sad sack as Frank, revealing little of the drive and ambition that the role demands. Celia Keenan-Bolger (who shone in Peter and the Starcatcher) doesn't fare much better as Mary, although she does expertly toss off a couple of well-timed zingers. Oddly, these two fine singers seem daunted by the score, and their big numbers fail to make much of an impact. The orchestra, led by Rob Berman, has a gummy sound that doesn't help matters.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) is an engaging Charlie, and the show finally feels like a musical halfway through the first act with his sharp, funny rendition of "Franklin Shepard, Inc." He's not the strongest singer, which he uses to his advantage when Charlie anxiously auditions in "Good Thing Going."

I didn't care much for Elizabeth Stanley's Gussie, whose overwrought second-act opener seemed more appropriate for an "American Idol" contestant than the Broadway star she's supposed to be. The reliable Adam Grupper, as Gussie's producer husband Joe Josephson, gets a big laugh with his bluster in "Opening Doors." But it's Zachary Unger, as Frank's young son, who earns the most enthusiastic applause with his earnest reprise of the title number. (It's the only time in the show that the number makes sense.)

Encores! usually tries to present shows that are more or less what audiences heard during their initial runs on Broadway. It seems a shame that instead of letting us experience Sondheim's original score, we get a Merrily that's been tinkered with for 30 years. It's no surprise that the most successful production I've seen, the 2000 version at London's Donmar Warehouse, did the least tinkering.

Merrily doesn't come around very often, which is why this overworked production feels so depressing. But it's hard not to think that the creators should have taken the advice Sondheim himself offers in the score: "turn around and go back."

Merrily We Roll Along is playing at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through February 19. Tickets start at $25 and are available at 212-581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.