Sunday, February 12, 2012

Even Flops Deserve an Encore

Review: Merrily We Roll Along
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Collin Donnell, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Encores staging of Merrily We Roll Along
I hope that Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, running this weekend and next as part of the Encores! concert series at NY City Center, receives that oft-speculated about Broadway transfer. Not because the show (or this production) is perfect; far from it, as there are many problems plaguing this 1981 flop musical about a group of friends dealing with life’s many disappointments. But the show is so close to being the grandly affecting theatrical revelation that we *want* it to be, and I firmly believe that it could achieve those lofty heights with just a bit more work.
A brief history lesson for the uninitiated: Merrily was the sixth collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, an artistic partnership that gave the world shows like Follies, Company, and Sweeney Todd. It tells the story of Franklin Shepard, a songwriter and film producer who is estranged from virtually everyone, including his longtime lyricist Charley Kringas and their novelist friend Mary Flynn. The story unfolds backwards, slowly revealing how these three inseparable friends ended up hating one another. The musical was such a critical and commercial failure when it opened on Broadway that it not only ended the Sondheim-Prince collaboration, but almost caused the gifted composer to retire from the theatre altogether.
But the show was preserved on a glorious original cast album, one which I have been in love with for many years. This Encores! concert, the latest in a decade-long, city wide fascination with all things Sondheim, was my first chance to see the show on its feet, and judge for myself whether the show (heavily revised by Sondheim and bookwriter George Furth since its initial Broadway run) was as bad as history would have you believe.
And unfortunately, this production doesn’t quite work. But it is so maddeningly close that I can’t help but think that with more time, it could become a truly transcendent theatrical event. The notoriously short Encores! rehearsal period hasn’t provided the performers with enough time to crack these complex characters, leaving us with a show that has its moments but is ultimately unsatisfying.

The book is partially to blame, but there’s no easy way to fix it. The same choice that makes the show fascinating – telling the story in reverse chronological order – also creates a host of challenges. It requires the actors to start the show at such an intense emotional level, where the depth of their bitterness and disappointment should be emanating from their pores, that few would be up to the task even in a traditional setting, let alone the abridged rehearsal period allowed here. Rather than having the entire evening to work up to that level of angst, the characters start at their emotional peak and slowly shed layers of regret to become the hopeful youths seen in the play’s final scene. The reverse narrative also requires the audience to absorb an incredible amount of back story early on, as we try to piece together the various relationships and how they got that way.

I honestly feel that Furth’s book does this in the most economical way possible; the rest is up to the actors and director. Helmer James Lapine and his cast are headed in the right direction here, but have obviously run short on time. More rehearsal, and a longer preview period, would certainly provide all of them with the chance to deepen their own understanding of the text and how to best illustrate that to the audience, which is why I would love to see the show transfer to Broadway and be able to revisit it after they had had a solid month or more to explore it. And everyone knows that Sondheim’s songs (which are at their most heart-wrenchingly beautiful here) can reveal new meanings on each subsequent listening, again making a convincing case for more rehearsal time.

As is, none of the three leads have a strong handle on their characters, although all are respectable actors who have solid moments throughout. As Franklin Shepard, Colin Donnell is so charming that you end up rooting for him even as the character makes some truly repugnant choices. Donnell has a gorgeous singing voice, and enough intelligence to be able to convey the inner conflict that underlies all of Shepard’s actions without ever being voiced. But at least two numbers require Shepard be absolutely reamed by other characters without chance for rebuttal, and Donnell misses the opportunity to really demonstrate the emotional toll it takes on Shepard.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is more problematic as Charley. Though a Tony-nominee for his performance in In the Heights, Miranda is not a singer, and seems to be outside of his natural range for most of the show. Occasionally his acting abilities allow him to compensate, but he is usually too concerned with hitting the right notes to be fully convincing. Yet all this doesn’t stop him from delivering a strong rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” an incredible piece of musical theatre writing that is one of the greatest gifts Sondheim ever gave a male actor.
But Miranda utterly botches Charley’s other big number, “Good Thing Going,” although I’m not sure he is entirely to blame. A song from Frank and Charley’s work-in-progress show that they sing at a backer’s audition, on the original cast album it is a solo wherein you see Charley’s dawning realization that he is losing his friend to the soulless entertainment industry. Contrasted with some technically dazzling counterpoint from the backers, who are discussing anything but the song they’re hearing, it’s an utterly heartbreaking moment. But in this production the song is a duet for Charley and Frank (mostly Frank) that serves no purpose; it no longer illustrates Charley’s increasing isolation, and the fact that these backers have no interest in making the “art” Charley and Frank aspire to has already been well-established. Now, this may be a rewrite done by Sondheim and Furth (though an ill-advised one), but it reads as if Miranda simply couldn’t sing the song and the music director hastily added Donnell in to compensate. Either way, it kills what could have been one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the entire show.
Completing the trio of leads is Celia Keenan-Bolger, who does her best with the ill-defined Mary. The show never does a great job of establishing Mary as a character in her own right; she functions purely as a mediator between the bickering Charley and Frank. But given the amount of stage time Mary has and the serious dramatic ambitions of the show, she really should be given more depth than “mediator” and “occasional comic relief.” Keenan-Bolger does a decent job with the one-liners and makes a very convincing drunk in the opening scenes, but can’t overcome the limitations placed on her by the book.
The performer that comes out the best in all of this is Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie Carnegie, the star of Frank and Charley’s Broadway hit and Frank’s second wife. Although Gussie’s function in the story is clear – she’s the temptress that prompts most of Frank’s bad decisions – unlike Mary she is given enough personality and idiosyncrasies to evolve beyond that. Stanley is fantastic in the role, effortlessly capturing the glamour of a bona fide star and the neuroticism that all too often accompanies it. Although she gets plenty of stage time, I found myself wanting more of her, since the show tended to flounder when she was offstage. And as Frank’s first wife Beth, Betsy Wolfe sings and acts well enough, although her rendition of the show’s big ballad “Not a Day Goes By” needs more time to deepen into the emotional sucker punch it can be when sung by someone like Bernadette Peters (who has made it a staple of her concert performances).
Again, this is a show I dearly love, and so part of my disappointment with the Encores! production may stem from lofty expectations. But this production and this cast is clearly headed in the right direction, which makes it even more upsetting that they don’t have the luxury of more time to tackle this behemoth of a show. I suspect the difference between the first and second weekends will be enormous, and who knows what could be achieved with even more time to settle into these roles. Hopefully the reception for the concert staging will be warm enough that some producer risks bringing the show to Broadway, where I think the extra rehearsal time will result in a first rate staging of this important but problematic work.

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