One of the disadvantages of being a critic, sitting in house seats up front in the center of the theatre, is that the actors can see us when we yawn with boredom. I did that a lot during the revival of Merrily We Roll Along, the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical at the Laura Pels Theatre.
After sitting through this Roundabout Theatre Company production, directed by Noah Brody, I can see why the show was troubled from the start. The original 1981 Broadway production lasted for only 16 performances.
A major obstacle is Furth’s book. The plot, such as it is, centers around three creative people -- Frank, a composer (Ben Steinfeld), Charley, a lyricist (Manu Narayan) and Mary, a novelist (Jessie Austrian) — and the assorted spouses and others in their lives. At one time, decades before the start of the play, they were close friends, fired up with the expectancy of their futures.
But that was long ago. The play begins in 1980 and works its way back to that time in 1957. It's a pretty dull journey, with cast members who don’t ever really connect with one another. Considering this is supposed to be a play about relationships, romantic and professional, that is a problem. Lorin Latarro’s choreography does little to bring them together in a convincingly personal way. The closest they come is in singing “Old Friends” in Frank’s New York apartment in 1968 but the spark is dim.
The characters themselves never engaged me, and while two of my favorite Sondheim songs are featured -- “Good Thing Going" and “Not a Day Goes By" -- they are sung with so little passion they slip right by. Passion is missing throughout the show, which also features Brittany Bradford, Paul L. Coffey and Emily Young. Music direction and orchestration for the eight-piece, off-stage band is provided by Alexander Gemignani.
Even Frank’s desire to get rich, which causes him to abandon his songwriting partnership with Charley for a career as a movie producer, lacks the driving greed it should have.
“Why do you have to be poor to write a good show,” he asks, reasonably enough.
A 75-minute play about unhappy, betraying people isn’t my idea of entertainment.
“Look at us, Charley,” Mary sings as the two wallow in self pity in a New York cafe in 1976. “Nothing’s the way it was. I want it the way it was. Make it like it was.”
The only real glimpse we get of those good times is in the final scene, on a rooftop in 1957, when a young Frank, Charley and Mary sing of their enthusiasm about the future in “Our Time.”
Adding to the dreariness is set designer Derek McLane’s odd backdrop. When I first walked into the theatre and saw it, I thought it was supposed to represent a junk shop. Then, considering it’s a musical about show business, I figured it is supposed to be either backstage or a movie studio prop department. The program doesn’t say. At any rate, it’s an ugly clustering of lamps, books, figurines and clothes. As a set piece, it has little to do with the action, which takes place mostly in apartments that are represented simply through a few pieces of furniture and props.
This production is a collaboration between Roundabout and its Company-in-Residence, Fiasco Theater, and incorporates additional material from the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play on which the musical is loosely based.
A better approach to staging this as a full musical would have been to do a concert version, which would highlight the show’s strengths — Sondheim’s words and lyrics. I wouldn’t yawn through that.