My Variety Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'
Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around.
They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new discoveries and pleasures found in the 1981 musical (based on the 1934 melodrama by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) as it follows a group of friends backwards in time from cynical middle-age to their idealistic younger selves.
This revival comes from the Fiasco Theatre Company — known for its stripped-down productions — and here features six actors playing all the roles, which may make it appealing for the provinces eager to try their hand at the show, too. Like the characters they play at the beginning of their mid-century Manhattan careers, this cast brims with nerve, energy and overreach.
The problem isn’t the time-traveling aspects of the musical, but the shaky foundation of its arts-versus-commerce stakes. All the rest is simply rearranging the dramaturgical furniture, though in this production, director Noah Brody has a keen eye for revelatory details that perk up scenes and deepen characters.
“Now You Know,” the song where journalist/novelist Mary (Jessie Austrian) and lyricist-playwright Charlie (Manu Narayan) try to lift the spirits of composer Frank (Ben Steinfeld, terrific) after his divorce, is now a nuanced, more dramatically telling number instead of the same-old pick-me-up. “Old Friends” also nicely shows the intricate ties that binds them together, even ending with a hat tip to “Design for Living.”
In this version, Frank becomes slightly more likable, especially in contrast to the others, which is a big help for this otherwise bland character.