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A CurtainUp Review
Merrily We Roll Along


— Lyric from the title song.
Merrily We Roll Along
Manu Narayan as Charley, Jessie Austrian as Mary, and Ben Steinfeld as Frank (Photo:Joan Marcus)
Despite his standing as the contemporary musical theater's most influential composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim's musicals haven't always been instant winners. When Merrily We Roll Along first opened at the Alvin Theater in 1981 he certainly wasn't able to jubilantly sing "It's a Hit" as two of that show's characters did about their first collaborative venture. In fact, Merrily We Roll Along was a major Sondheim flop.

While it closed after just two weeks, the ear-pleasing songs with their Sondheim wit imbued lyrics did result in two cast recordings, various revised productions and something of a cult fan base. These cultish devotees have remained ever hopeful that the strength of Sondheim's score would overcome the weakness of George Furth's book.

Naturally, the show's fans who are eager to deem it a hit at last will be filling lots of seats at the Laura Pels, where the latest revisical has been mounted by the the Fiasco Theater Company. That scrappy little company of former Brown/Trinity MFA Acting program classmates has made a name for itself with spare but lively and inventive productions of Shakespeare plays like Cymbeline & Measure for Measure as well as a terrific new version of another slow to catch on Sondheim musical, Into the woods— also at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater.

Both Mr. Sondheim and the Roundabout have thrown their full support behind the Fiasco team's efforts to make this more than 20-year spanning story of three friends bonded by their dream of "trying to change the world" roll along merrily and more smoothly, and, of course, give the songs vivid new life.

For Sondheim that support gave Fiasco's Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld access to his archives and permission to use as they wished. For the Roundabout it meant support with production values exceeding a small organization's' usual budget.

While the Fiasco approach may not please everyone, and their Merrily does have some problems. But true to one of the songs, the Fiasco team has a "A Good Thing Going" and once again showcase their resourcefulness.

For starters, there's the way they've pared it down to a single act, even as they've used their access to the Sondheim archives to actually add a scene from the musical's source— the 1934 non-musical Kauffman and Moss play of the same name.

There's also the deftly executed double casting to make the small six member cast seem larger. (The original featured 27!). They've also kept the orchestra small (8 musicians) and, thanks to Music Director Alexander Gemignani's orchestrations and new arrangements, the lyrics come across loud and clear enough to be fully appreciated. This also offsets the fact that for all the committed and energetic performances, only the singing of Manu Narayan as Charlie is outstanding rather than okay.

Though vocalizing is not this production's strong suit, Fiasco puts them over with their special flair. That flair is especially on display in the wonderfully satiric "The Blob" which manages to turn into a Broadway-ish production number by partnering the dancing ensemble with makeshift mannequins delightfully costumed by Paloma Young. There's also Manu Narayan's show stopping number about how his lyric writing and friend Frank's (Ben Steinfeld) composing work. A lights on/audience participation scene is also amusing.

But for all the clever touches and Lorin Latarro's peppy choreography, the many lovely songs are still attached to a structural gimmick that viewers of the large cast version found too confusing and awkward. The basic story is simple enough. It depicts the stages its three main characters (Ben Steinfeld's Frank, Manu Narayan's Charlie, novelist/critic Jessie Austrian's Mary) go through as part of their individual, friendship and career connected "Growing Up." Frank abandons songwriting to become a Hollywood producer, without Frank to write lyrics for Charlie turns to playwriting (successfully so). Novelist Mary morphs into an acerbic Critic and drowns her unrequited love for Frank in alcohol.

The gimmick is that the story plays out in reverse order. Thus, after the 1980 opening introduces us to the ensemble singing the title song, we go back another year to a scene in F the forty-ish rank's Bel Air Mansion, with Frank singing about being "Rich and Happy" ("Days are Sunny/Working Hard For Lots Of Money./ Filled With People Smart And Funny").

While this backwards storytelling doesn't seem all that necessary, it does here work pretty well, and actually at times adds some piquancy to the evolving life changes. The smaller cast and additional material from the source play seem to have clarified what once confused and distracted.

As for the production values, Derek McLane's set is an eye popper, with an incredible assemblage of costumes, props and theatrical memorabilia surrounding the set. A large neon sign of the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon ) is a sly nod to the theater where Merrily. . . However, it's too much of a good thing since most of this assembled clutter is not really needed and just the changing back wall at the center of the stage would have been enough.

I rather doubt that the strong acting, inventiveness, charm and stylishness, will turn Sondheim's major flop into a belated major hit likely to move to Broadway. But there's plenty here to enjoy and warrant a trip to the Laura Pels.

For more about this musical's long history, check out the Roundabout's Upstatage guide here:
Songs (in order performed, going from 1980 to 1957 in a variety of locations and situations)
  • Merrily We Roll Along
  • Rich and Happy
  • Like It Was
  • Franklin Shepard Inc
  • Old Friends
  • Growing Up
  • Not a Day Goes By
  • Now You Know
  • He's Only a Boy
  • It's a Hit
  • The Blob
  • Growing Up
  • Good Thing Going
  • Bobby and Jackie and Jack
  • Not a Day Goes By
  • Opening Doors
  • Our Time

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    Merrily We Roll Along
    Book by George Furth
    Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on and with additional material from the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
    Directed by Noah Brody
    Choreographed by Lorin Latarro
    Music Direction, orchestrations and new arrangements: Alexander Gemignani
    Cast: Manu Narayan, Brittany Bradford, Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, Paul L. Coffey, and Emily Young.
    Scenic Design by Derek McLane
    Costume Design by Paloma Young, Ashley Rose Horton
    Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind
    Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
    Music Coordinatr: Meg Zervoulis  Fiasco Theater Singing and Alexander Technique Consultant: Kathryn Armour
    Production Stage Mananger: Mark Dobrow
    Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no Intermission
    Fiasco Theater production at Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street
    . From 1/12/19; opening 2/19/19; closing 4/07/19.
    Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/21/19 press performance

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