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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
at City Center

ENCORE! ENCORE!
By MATT WINDMAN

  Betsy Wolfe, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Donnell, Celia Kennan-Bolger and Adam Grupper/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Thirty years ago, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim’s musical that moves backwards in time from 1976 to 1957 and observes how a strong three-way friendship falls apart, crashed and burned in its Broadway debut. It lasted just 16 performances and broke up the longstanding partnership of Sondheim and director Hal Prince, whose string of acclaimed musicals in the 1970s included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.

But even if the original production was problematic and ugly, and the show’s plot is unusual and often sad, it contains many of Sondheim's most heartfelt and exquisitely crafted songs.

James Lapine, who became Sondheim’s new collaborator after the Merrily debacle, directed a revised version of the musical in 1985 that has since been done at countless regional theaters. This version, again directed by Lapine, is now receiving a triumphant, absolutely exhilarating revival as part of City Center’s Encores! series.

As the show begins, Franklin Shepard (Colin O’Donnell) is a former composer turned film producer and his longtime pal Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a best-selling author turned sarcastic alcoholic. Frank is no longer on speaking terms with his former songwriting partner Charley Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who refused to condone Frank’s relentless pursuit of financial success.

Scene by scene, we travel chronologically backwards and watch what led to the dissolution of Frank’s marriage and friendship with Charles. Eventually, Frank evolves back into an innocent, idealistic youth who believed that his songs would change the world. “Our Time,” the show’s anthem of hope at the end of act two, is ironically devastating given our knowledge of what lies ahead in Frank’s future.

Lapine’s production utilizes large LED panels to convey the settings for each scene as well as historical footage and photos of the actors. During the opening number, we watch a slideshow of the characters aging forward in time, which helps put the backwards storytelling into context. The actors also use a large number of wigs to represent different ages and period styles.

O’Donnell, who recently starred as Billy in Anything Goes, makes a credible transition from hollow Hollywood hack to starry-eyed dreamer. Miranda, who is best known as the creator of the musical In the Heights, is still adjusting to the difficult score, but manages to pull through.

Keenan-Bolger delivers a deeply felt performance as Mary, who has always loved Frank from afar. Also excellent are Betsy Wolfe as Frank’s sweet first wife Beth and Elizabeth Stanley as his kooky, self-absorbed second wife Gussie.

 


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