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Merrily We Roll Along
By Elyse Sommer
Sure, the book and music still aren't a match made in heaven, but James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim's collaborator on Sunday in the Park With George and this production's director, and projection designer Wendell K. Harrington have seen to it that this Merrily We Roll Along is not a hopelessly dysfunctional marriage of book and music. In fact, though not quibble-immune, The Encores! production does indeed roll merrily along. The reverse story telling works quite well and to hear Sondheim's songs accompanied by a full-sized orchestra . . . well, to quote another master lyricist, "who could ask for anything more?"
The reverse story telling that has each scene take place at an earlier one than the one last seen is always a challenge, but especially so in a musical in which the songs must clarify the time changes. Harrington's projections most effectively sharpen the time element. The images —some establishing historic events for a particular time periods, others working as a photo album for the three main characters — are astutely projected just below the orchestra also add to the production's visual pleasures.
The period covered in this present-to-past plot arc begins in Hollywood where we see where the hopes and dreams that bonded three creative young people have evolved and affected the friendship: Marital problems and financial ambition prompted Frank to abandon Broadway and his partnership with lyricist Charley to become a rich Hollywood producer. . devoted confidante and booster Mary did write a novel but her love for Frank remains her not very well kept secret. And yet, the shifting alliances and career paths, keep the trio connected and yearning for those early days when they still treated their friendship like a garden to be watered.
The current old friends retracing their path back to the Manhattan rooftop where it all began are Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley Kringas, Colin Donnell as Franklin Shepard and Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mary Flynn. Donnell, last seen in Anything Goes, is the best fit for Sondheim's musical style, but Miranda and Keenan-Bolger, though not natural Sondheim singers, bring their own style to their roles. Keenan-Bolger's Mary is reminiscent of Dorothy Parker and Miranda manages to inject his number with a rap/patter song flavor. The chemistry between all three is vibrant and strong enough to offset any quibbles about vocal shortcomings.
Betsy Wolfe as Beth Spencer and Adam Grupper as Joe Josephson also do fine work. But if there's a standout, it's Elizabeth Stanley, a seasoned Sondheimian (April in <a href="company2006.html">Company) as Gussie Carnegie. Ann Houd-Ward, who seems to have gone out of her way to dress Keenen-Bolger in period perfect but excessively ugly outfits, makes up for it with a stunning red gown for Gussie in the show's big production number, "Musical Husbands" at the top of the second and best act. Not to be overlooked is the adorable little trouper Zachary Unger who plays Frank Jr.
If the tweaking of the story and the projections make the Furth-Sondheim marriage work quite well the real reason to see this Merrily We Roll Along are the songs: "Old Friends" by the central trio. . . Charley's "Franklin Shepard Inc" solo. . . Betsy Wolfe's poignant "Not a Day Goes By" . . the company's delicious "Opening Doors" . . .and the fabulous "Our Time" finale when the somewhat sour old friends are once again young, likeable hopefuls you want to root for.
I rather doubt that the "It's a Hit" number when Frank and Charley's show opens successfully on Broadway, portends that the Encores! Merrily. . . will turn this 31-year-old Broadway flop into a 2012 or 2013 hit. But it's got enough hit qualities for me to repeat: See it before its longer than usual but still short City Center run rolls away again.
When you go, be sure to read ack Viertel's enlightening essay about the show's history on pages 10-12 of the Encores! Playbill.
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