By Tulis McCall
Well, “Merrily We Roll Along” at New York Theate Workshop is sold out because New York is filled with a surprising bunch of softees who all want to see Harry Potter (AKA Daniel Radcliffe) in person. Can’t blame them. The good news is that the cancelation line starts about 2 hours prior to the show and there are a good number of people who do get in.
On to the show. I didn’t know that this one of those reversal tales that starts in 1976 at what may be the end and travels back to 1957 at what was definitely the beginning. In 1957, three people Frank (Goff), Mary (Lindsey Mendez) and Charlie (Daniel Radcliffe) form a bond on a rooftop that follows them around for an eon or two. Charlie is in love with words, Frank with music (until he falls for himself) and Mary with Frank. You see what a wonderful trio they make. A perfect love triangle of contradictions.
Going back in time is confusing. A note in the program (along with a song and scene list) would have been seriously helpful. Suffice it to say that old Frank looks bleak as the show starts, and as well go along, we realize the trajectory of the tale is downhill.
There is Sondheim, however, and that is enough to lift anyone’s spirits. In addition to the music being Sondheim, a few of the numbers are classics that travel across genres. “Old Friend” has been covered by everyone from Barry Manilow to Marilyn Maye to Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Not A Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going” by more than I can count. To hear theses songs spring out of the story is reassuring. Like an old friend popping into your visual field and rocking your world.
In addition this is a superlative cast. Mendez is a standout for so many reasons – mainly because although this story is featured as being about Frank and Charlie, it is Mary who provides the catalyst, the spark. She keeps the team going and is reckless and brave. Without her the men would not be the team that they were. Goff and Radcliffe are a match of perfection. They leap into the fray without hesitation and show us two fully formed human beings who snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
The attention to detail that Maria Friedman (who was one of Sondheim’s favorite interpreters of his work) brings to this piece is evident everywhere. Every actor has an inner life that smolders – whether they be in the chorus or featured in a larger role. There is no moment that your mind wanders in a “ho-hum.”
As to the artistic team, the writers could not have picked a more homely sartorial era. Soutra Gilmore must have been positively giddy picking out the fashion of the 60-s and 70’s. Lots of browns and horrible earth tones, one more visually assaulting than the previous. The orchestra, under the direction of Alvin Hough, Jr. is mighty in spite of its size and location (tucked up into the rafters).
As to the content, story-wise there is not a lot of meat on these bones. Which is not to say everything must be light and meaningful. Watching this story slide backwards to its hopeful and probably doomed beginning takes us all on the train ride down the lane of highs and lows. What it doesn’t quite do is make the circle complete – although it comes darn close. But then, who is to say the circle has to complete itself. Perhaps closure is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when seen through a rear view mirror.
There is a lot of all of us in this show. That and the jet-propulsioned cast may be enough to take it uptown and give Sondheim some post mortem respite.
And may I just say that this show had people talking upas blue streak. Two 20-something women in back of me discussed the show at intermission saying that the theme was very Kurt Weill – that if you are rich you don’t create. Because of that, “The people who want this to succeed don’t want it to be popular.” Not often you hear a mini-dissertation at intermission.
Two more points that I hope get a second thought before the uptown wagon train heads out. Everyone in the show is dressed head to toe in the flat boring palette of the 60’s and 70’s. Mendez in an endless array of flowers and patterns that defy identity. Radcliffe is all tweeds and sweater vests. Only Groff remains in a white shirt (with varying collar sizes) with black jacked and slacks. Because…???? Is it meant to make him stand out? No need for that. He does that on his own. The final observation, and pardon me whilst I pick a knit here, is that there is a circular set decoration on the wall up stage right that becomes various pieces of art over time. What it also becomes is a big old clock during a scene that takes place in real time. It is a TV interview with Frank and Charlie. Initially, much is made of the time factor because they are going live. So one would expect the clock to keep up with the action.
It does not. It stays steady on at 5:00 while the world explodes over a 10-15 minute period. A friend of mine said it was a budgetary decision and the powers that be just hoped that no one would notice because there were other critical elements that demanded attention. Oops!
So here’s the deal – if you make it to the uptown version, let me know about that clock. Okie-doke?
Merrily We Roll Along, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart. Directed by Maria Friedman
WITH Sherz Aletaha, Krystal Joy Brown, Katie Rose Clarke, Leana Rae Concepcionee, Jonathan Groff, Carter Harris and Colin Keane , Morgan Kirner, Corey Mach, Lindsay Mendez, Daniel Radcliffe, Talia Robinson, Reg Rogers, Amanda Rose, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Brian Sears, Evan Alexander Smith, Christian Strange,Koray Tarhan, Vishal Vaidya, Natalie Wachen, Jacob Keith Watson.
Choreography by Tim Jackson, Catherine Jayes as music supervisor and Alvin Hough, Jr. music director, with scenic & costume design by Soutra Gilmour lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, and sound design by Kai Harada
Through January 21, 2023. Information on Cancellation Line HERE.