Most Broadway failures limp offstage, never to be seen again except as posters on the Wall of Flops at Joe Allen’s Theater District canteen.
Not “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Ever since it closed after 16 performances in 1981, this Stephen Sondheim musical has been revived, revised, rearranged and reconsidered by some of the best talents in the business. The latest attempt to make an honest show of it is the concert version opening the season at New York City Center’s invaluable “Encores!” series of semi-staged concerts.
“Merrily” tells the story of three friends who meet in 1957 as New York City college students: Mary, a budding writer who carries a torch for Franklin, a composer; and Charley, a would-be playwright. During the next two decades, Mary writes a best-selling novel before dissolving into alcoholism. Charley writes earnest plays that win prizes but not dollars and Franklin sells out to Hollywood, becoming a high-living producer of schlock.
The gimmick is that the story is told backwards, just as it was in the 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart. Franklin (Colin Donnell), Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Charley (Lin-Manuel Miranda) are first seen when their friendship is ruins.
We travel back in time to the finale, their chance meeting on the roof of an apartment building. They’ve come to watch Sputnik stream across the night sky and, hitting it off, they sing that “something is stirring, shifting ground ... and yesterday is done.”
This is a bad idea. Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” succeeded in telling its tale in reverse chronology. A musical builds emotionally in a different way. The first time we meet them, Franklin is a philandering egomaniac, Mary an acid-tongued drunk and Charley an embittered scourge. They’re unlikable and, worse, boring.
Why all this effort for what remains a fatally flawed work? The reason is simple: “Merrily” has an ingratiatingly entertaining score. The half-dozen songs that unfold in its last half-hour are as moving an account of the way time warps youthful dreams as you’re ever likely to hear.
They’re also the point at which James Lapine’s production finally takes off. Until then, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda both sang somewhat shakily, which I will blame on opening night nerves; only Donnell seemed comfortably assured.
This allowed others to shine, particularly Adam Grupper as a middlebrow lawyer/producer; Elizabeth Stanley as the knockout wife who leaves him for Franklin; and Betsy Wolfe as the long-suffering spouse Franklin dumps for Stanley. A reprise of the torchy ballad “Not a Day Goes By,” sung by Keenan-Bolger and Wolfe, is a killer.
Lapine and video wizard Wendall K. Harrington provide era-defining images (in which the three leads appear, Zelig-like, with Kennedys and others). Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes also place us securely in each period. But even the reliable Encores! Orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, seemed shaky on opening night.
For all these reasons, I plan to revisit “Merrily” a bit later in the run, when I’m pretty certain all the elements will have fallen securely into place. And maybe next time, some enterprising director will stage “Merrily” backwards. The way it ought to be done.
Through Feb. 19 at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org. Rating: **1/2
Kate Fodor’s “Rx,” running off-Broadway at 59E59 Theatres, is a charmer.
Stephen Kunken plays a doctor whose lousy bedside manner has led him to take a job running trials for a pharmaceutical company. Marin Hinkle is the neurotic, depressed trade-magazine editor who signs up for a new drug to combat “workplace depression.” She spends her lunch hours in the ladies’ underwear section of a nearby department store, sobbing with existential remorse.
They fall in love. She becomes addicted to the uppers, but their cover is blown and so is the trial. No more pills for Hinkle, who has come to love her work for American Cattle and Swine.
Kunken wants her to follow him on a humanitarian mission to Africa, where he hopes she will return to writing the prose poetry she long ago abandoned. She’s having none of it; she just wants her damned pills.
Under Ethan McSweeny’s deft direction, these engaging actors effortlessly capture the play’s screwball-comedy tone. As a romance, “Rx” is a terrific farce, skewering Big Pharma. As farce, it’s a warmly romantic valentine.
Through March 3 at 59 E. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)