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THEATRE REVIEW: Fiasco Theater’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ moves fast, transitions smoothly

If you don’t get a lump in your throat in the final scene when the youthful Frank, Charley and Mary sing “Our Time” looking skyward with wonder and wide-eyed innocence at Sputnik in 1957 nighttime sky from a Brooklyn rooftop, you have no heart.

Merrily We Roll Along
By Stephen Sondheim and George Furth

Roundabout Theatre Company is promoting Fiasco Theater’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” Stephen Sondheim’s least successful Broadway show, as “re-imagined.” Scaled down is more like it. The good news is that three main characters present clearly; the bad news is that all the frailties of George Furth’s book, adapted from the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, are on plain display. The central problem any production of “Merrily” since its brief 1981 original run has been telling a story about three close friends in reverse, from the late ‘70s to late ‘50s. How do you make characters sympathetic who start out (in the play) as unattractive, jaded adults (in life) but end up (in the play) as wholesome, optimistic youth (in life)?

By 1980, Franklin Shephard is a hard-charging, wife-cheating Hollywood producer of box office dreck. But in 1957, he started out as struggling in a New York tenement, passionate about music, dreaming to be the best composer he could be. The intellectual Charley ends up as a Pulitzer Prize dramatist but he’s totally estranged from Frank (Frank “sold-out”), but way back when he was the struggling playwriting roommate of Frank, penning lyrics to Frank’s songs. Middle-aged Mary Flynn is an angry, lonely, unmarried alcoholic, who produced one so-so bestseller and now churns out movie reviews but back in the good old days, she was an aspiring novelist, best sidekick of Frank and Charley and, in her dreams, a Mrs. Franklin Shepherd.

Manu Narayan, Emily Young, Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian and Paul L. Coffey in the Fiasco Theater production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

Fiasco trims the cast down to just six players. Besides the best friend trio, there’s Beth, Frank’s first wife; Gussie, the song-and-dance bombshell he left Beth for; and Joe, Gussie’s husband and producer, who gets jilted by Gussie on her and Frank’s  way to the top. All the other minor characters, which populate the Los Angeles and New York cocktail parties, the bars, the clubs, the television studios and offices are played by these six, who go upstage to set designer Derek McClane’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling set full of theatrical props and everyday goods to retrieve props and make costume changes to set the scene.

McClane’s set is a facile expedient for Fiasco’s modus operandi. It not only services the small cast, but also provides a dense, visual tableau of the stuff of show biz and everyday life.  On the dozens of shelves are dozens of ordinary household items—television sets, house plants, room fans, lamps—that recall the decades by period design that “Merrily” covers; interspersed with the everyday are the theatrical objects—a klieg light, a shelf of wigs, racks of costumes.  In composite, McClane’s set reminds old theater hands of the old theater prop rental joints on the West Side. And in homage to the original “Merrily” production, there hangs a neon marquee for the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) where the original “Merrily” was staged.

Sometimes with Fiasco productions, though, it seems it’s really about observing how the company will produce a scene with so little to work with. Director Noah Brody, and co-artistic Fiasco artistic director, was on safer footing with Fiasco’s “Into the Woods” several seasons back.  Fairy tales, less literal than the “Merrily” story, lend themselves better to whimsical imagination.  But, credit to Brody, this “Merrily” not only moves faster than its predecessor (an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission) but also transitions smoothly form scene to scene, from year to year, without the “chapter” sectioning or “calendar” pacing that Furth’s book can get a less-fluid production mired in.

Director Brody introduces some nifty touches, especially a swift costume change for Mary from a booze-bloated older alcoholic into a younger, thinner woman. There’s an interesting shutter-stop reverse movement of the cast to timeshift backwards. (It’s used once to an interesting effect; had it been used every scene shift, it would have been tedious.) Sometimes Fiasco’s spare, inventive staging doesn’t get beyond gimmicky, as in “The Blog” number that satirizes 1960s Manhattan elite cocktail party of opinion makers. Four cast members socialize around in song with stand-in partygoers of costumed mannequins and broomstick figures.

Lorin Latarro, who choreographed ”Waitress” still on Broadway, keeps the footwork simple. Especially amusing was the en masse coke-snorting movement in the opening Los Angeles cocktail party number, “Rich and Happy.” Fiasco’s “Merrily” is on its surest footing when focusing on Frank, Mary and Charley. This production’s biggest assets—as it is in any production of “Merrily”—are Stephen Sondheim’s songs, arguably the most sweetly melodic of his canon. The highlight of the show is “Old Friends,” an ode to the trio’s loyalty even when they start seeing cracks in the friendship.

A central melody that weaves through the middle parts of the show comes from Frank’s breakthrough song,“Good Thing Going,” which begins as a youthful, soulful ballad. But as Frank gets seduced by Gussie and commercial success, chords of the song get appropriated for a big, razzle-dazzle musical finale that will make her—and Frank and Charley—the toast of Broadway. The forward progression of the song and the backwards regression of the narrative is the trickiest part of Furth’s book. With the production so stripped down, I’m not sure I would have followed this part of storyline had I not seen other productions of “Merrily,” including the 1981 original, before.

Ben Steinfeld, Manu Marayan and Jessie Austrian in the Fiasco Theater production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

Jessie Austrian as Mary Flynn and Manu Narayan as Charley fare the best. Austrian is lovely in the wistful “Like it Was.” Narayan imbues Charley with a crazed, angry neurosis in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” one of Sondheim’s most challenging songs for any performer. The role of Frank is a stumper. He’s supposed to be charming (sexy, even) but an opportunist. Ben Steinfeld’s Frank seems caught someplace in between and settles for benign smarminess.

The new, simplified arrangements by Alexander Gemignani, who orchestrated last season’s revival of “Carousel,” and a sprightly eight-piece band allow Sondheim’s lyrics, which are simpler in verse than much of his canon, to emerge plainly and precisely.

Fiasco’s production doesn’t discover anything in “Merrily” that hadn’t been plumbed before. The most successful production remains Menier Chocolate Factory’s in London in 2013 that transferred to the West End and deservedly had a short run at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in the fall of 2017.

Even with a problematic book and a spare production, Sondheim’s score rules. If you don’t get a lump in your throat in the final scene when the youthful Frank, Charley and Mary sing “Our Time” looking skyward with wonder and wide-eyed innocence at Sputnik in the 1957 nighttime sky from a Brooklyn rooftop, you have no heart. It gets me every time.

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Merrily We Roll Along plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre in New York City through Sunday, April 7.

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