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STAGE REVIEW : ‘MERRILY’ ROLLS ALONG IN LA JOLLA

Times Staff Writer

If anyone wanted evidence of the changing tide in the affairs of Broadway, a good place to look would be at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Not only did its artistic director Des McAnuff create a musical last year that went on to collect seven Tonys this year (“Big River”) but, more significantly, he has now done the reverse: He has offered the creators of a Broadway musical that belly-flopped in 1981 a safe harbor at La Jolla in which to rework it-- away from the glare of Broadway’s alarmingly high costs.

Here, in the shelter of the eucalyptus, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth took another look at their “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical based on the 1934 play of the same title by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, whose central device is the continuous rollback of a friendship from the success and secessions of middle age (1979) to the youthful ardors and uncompromising ideals that forged it 24 years before.

With the help of director James Lapine (with whom Sondheim shared the Pulitzer this year for “Sunday in the Park With George”), they reshaped, retooled, rewrote, reorganized.

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But did they, in fact, revitalize?

The answer is yes--and no. Certainly the “Merrily” that opened Sunday night at the La Jolla Playhouse is an improvement over the Broadway original, but it’s not improved enough.

The score for “Merrily” was never a problem. Following the Broadway disaster it became an instant favorite among Sondheim devotees. And the score at the La Jolla Playhouse (with splendid orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, a longtime Sondheim colleague) is only strengthened by the addition of a couple of new songs (“That Frank” and “Growing Up”), the writing of new lyrics for another (“Now You Know”), a deletion (“Rich and Happy”) and the restoration of two last-minute casualties of the Broadway version (“It’s a Hit!” and, more questionably, “The Blob”).

Gone is the awkward graduation scene that used to open the show and its embarrassing T-shirts with their literal character descriptions. Also gone is the finale graduation scene, still listed in the program. It had been cut before Sunday’s opening, and one might add, was not missed at all.

If this “Merrily” requires anything, it is, in fact, more shaving. The streamlining Furth did on his book isn’t sufficient. Having thrown off earlier shackles (including, at the top of the list, the monstrous Broadway set by Eugene Lee that did everything but slice and spit up actors), this “Merrily” deserved to really roll. It doesn’t.

Most disappointing, perhaps, is Lapine’s direction. It seemed made of sheer quicksilver in “March of the Falsettos,” yet is surprisingly docile and subdued here. Even traditional. And despite an ingenious system of rear projections (by Wendall Harrington) that telegraphs change without necessitating it, this “Merrily” lingers and stumbles.

And, no, it’s not the music. That remains a plus. Nor is it the performers. Top-liners John Rubinstein (Frank), Heather MacRae (Mary) and Chip Zien (Charley) as the three “old friends” are seasoned veterans, supported by a strong company, who do not disappoint.

“Not a Day Goes By” has been rightfully restored to Beth (Marin Mazzie), the character to whom it originally belonged (though the courthouse steps, after a divorce proceeding, still feel like a non-sequitur setting for such an intense love song, which may be the one true victim of the reversal of chronology). And the “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” number works much better here, partly because of Lapine’s new and more light-handed blocking and partly because the greater the distance we stand from the Kennedy tragedies, the less uneasy we become at anything that spoofs their lives.

The song “Old Friends” remains indestructible; so does the clever “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” and the new “Growing Up” is an absolute standout, both stylistically (it is much closer to the truncated rhythms of “Sunday in the Park”) and in its sheer ability to fascinate the ear.

If the book still needs work, the sense of humor doesn’t. Inside jokes abound. A musical-within-the-musical plays the Alvin Theater, former name of the Broadway house where “Merrily” flopped. “Opening Doors” allows Sondheim to take a poke at the criticism most frequently leveled at his work: “There’s not a tune you can hum, . . . not a tune you can go bum, bum, bum. . . .” Nor is the point lost when Joseph Josephson (Merwin Goldsmith) bemoans an absence of “melodee-dee-dee” to the strains of “South Pacific’s” “Some Enchanted Evening.” But, then, no one ever accused Sondheim of a lack of wit, even at his own expense.

The problem with “Merrily” may very well be endemic--built into the time-reverse process of the plot. Aside from a directorial approach that feels entirely too tame to deal successfully (read ruthlessly) with the book’s dilemmas, something at least as radical as the play’s central gimmick of traveling back in time is needed here. Thus, despite some rewards, chiefly musical ones, this revival of “Merrily” doesn’t go nearly far enough in mending its ills.

One must hope that the work can and will continue throughout the La Jolla run; that at least 30 minutes can be dropped from the lumbering plot; that the characters--stick figures, really--can be fleshed out. They need all the fleshing out they can get. (This is a problem that can be laid directly at the feet of the play’s time reversal: How do you grow to love someone you first meet when he’s become a sellout?)

As was demonstrated by the many lives of “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures” (and even Bill Arlen’s downright basic Equity Waiver “Merrily” in Los Angeles a couple of years ago), Sondheim fares best when most simply staged.

“Merrily” at La Jolla is an improvement over “Merrily” on Broadway, but is that saying a lot? There is work to be done and this seems like a good place to do it. With the drought of musicals on Broadway, today is not a moment too soon to continue. ‘MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG’

A revival of a Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical at the La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, UC San Diego. Music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim. Book George Furth. Based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Director James Lapine. Choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Musical direction Michael Starobin. Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick. Sets Loren Sherman. Costumes Ann Hould-Ward. Lights Beverly Emmons. Hair Peg Schierholz. Projections Wendall Harrington. Sound John Kilgore. Stage managers Johnna Murray and Chris Fielder. Dramaturge Ira Weitzman. Assistant director David Warren. Cast, Ralph Bruneau, Dick Decareau, Joy Franz, Ray Gill, Merwin Goldsmith, Heather MacRae, Marin Mazzie, Kathleen Rowe McAllen, Stephen McDonough, Mary Gordon Murray, Rosalyn Rahn, Lawrence Raiken, John Rubinstein, B. J. Ward, Chip Zien. Performances run through July 6, (619) 452-3960.


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