By Stanford Friedman
Stephen Sondheim was 50 years old when he wrote the music and lyrics for Merrily We Roll Along, the study in broken friendships amid bad choices that is enjoying a sympathetic and reworked revival by the Fiasco Theater (the Roundabout Theatre’s company in residence). Which is to say that this is the composer’s midlife crisis musical. Sometimes coy, other times trying too hard, and sewn through with reminders of what came before (Do I Hear a Waltz? No, but strains of Follies and Company are hard to miss.), the work is a little embarrassing to be around when it tries to be something it’s not, but a comfortable companion when it settles down to business.
The story, based on a 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart, follows three fresh-faced kids striving to make it in the big city. Frank (Ben Steinfeld) dreams of being a composer. His pal, Charley (Manu Narayan), hopes to be a playwright, and their neighbor Mary (Jessie Austrian) has writerly aspirations of her own. Were the tale to roll along a conventional timeline, the trio would travel from 1957 to 1979, finding success, but bowing to compromise, and finding love, but with the wrong lovers. United they would conspire until divided they would collapse, with Mary becoming a bitter drunk who gives up novel writing to become – gasp – a critic, while Frank chooses producing subpar movies over scoring hit musicals, and poor Charley gets stuck in the middle, with a Pulitzer Prize for drama, but no collaborators.
However, a conventional timeline this is not. George Furth’s book has the clock running in reverse, so our three protagonists are grown-up messes when we first encounter them at a drug fueled party in 1979 and the last scene finds them youthful and hopelessly optimistic, meeting cute on a rooftop in 1957. Committing to this structure bares mixed results. On one hand, it creates bonus resonance in songs like “Old Friends,” where Mary bemoans, “That’s what everyone does:/Blames the way it is/On the way it was.” It also allows for some lovely bookending. We first hear the Sondheim standard, “Not a Day Goes By,” sung by Frank’s first wife, Beth (Brittany Bradford), at the end of their marriage. It’s delivered as a tirade against her cheating spouse. She sings the reprise four scenes later, but now it is seven years earlier, and she is newly engaged and entranced. There is also plenty of winking at the reverse chronology. Liquor literally pours forth from Mary’s mouth as she backpedals from boozehound to teetotaler. And when Frank explains that, “Mary is my deepest, closest friend…We go way back,” Mary deadpans, “But seldom forward.”
The downside to beginning at the end, though, is that it makes for a bummer of an evening. With all the leads unlikable from the start, it is an uphill battle for the ensemble to win the audience’s hearts and minds. And even though the final scenes are spirited and uplifting, they are also classically tragic since the trio’s fate has already been determined. Mr. Steinfeld is workmanlike, if not exactly endearing, as Frank, while Mr. Narayan can’t quite generate sympathy, though he does charm with his rendition of another Sondheim staple, “Good Thing Going.” Ms. Austrian, saddled with Mary’s alcoholism, has to work twice as hard for her laughs. The supporting cast has an easier time of it. Ms. Bradford shines as the put upon Beth, as does Emily Young as Gussie, Joe’s second wife, who commands the stage like a musical Myrna Loy. Lorin Latarro’s choreography conjures some of the two guys and a gal camaraderie of Singin’ in the Rain, but Sondheim & Furth are not Comden & Green. The backward destiny of these friends and lovers cannot be resolved with a somersault over a sofa and a kiss.
Merrily We Roll Along – Book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Noah Brody
WITH: Jessie Austrian (Mary), Brittany Bradford (Beth/Meg/K.T.), Paul L. Coffey (Joe/Glen Wilson/ Mr. Spencer), Manu Narayan (Charley), Ben Steinfeld (Frank) and Emily Young (Gussie/Mrs. Spencer).
Music Direction & Orchestrations by Alexander Gemignani, Choreography by Lorin Latarro, Scenic Design, Derek McLane; Costume Design, Paloma Young; Lighting Design, Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design, Peter Hylenski; Production Stage Manager, Mark Dobrow. The Roundabout Theatre Company, Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St., 212.719.1300, https://www.roundabouttheatre.org. Through April 7. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes