"Merrily We Roll Along," the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical with a checkered record in the theater, is like a safe stuffed with jewels waiting for a director who can finally crack the combination.
Sondheim's songs are the priceless heirlooms inside. Furth's book, based on the undistinguished 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is the steel case in which they are locked away.
Harold Prince, hot off a streak of Sondheim successes ("Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd"), directed the original Broadway production that closed shortly after it opened, as the new documentary "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened" stirringly recounts. The crushing disappointment led to the demise of one of the storied collaborative relationships in the history of the American musical.
Michael Arden, the ingenious director behind the Deaf West Theatre revival of "Spring Awakening" that made the leap to Broadway, has returned to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to take his crack at "Merrily." Expectations were reasonably high, but this is a musical that has eluded even the most cunning of veterans.
Much like the more accomplished Menier Chocolate Factory revival (which I saw in London's West End in 2013), Arden's production reinforced my sense of the show as an insoluble stage conundrum — too enticing to be neglected yet too problematic ever to be a hit.
Aaron Lazar stars as Franklin Shepard, a composer who has sacrificed his artistic dreams to become a financially successful though jaded Hollywood producer. Wayne Brady plays Charley Kringas, a playwright who just wants to create memorable musicals with his gifted yet more commercially minded best friend. And Donna Vivino takes on the zingy if ultimately thankless role of Mary Flynn, a writer and critic whose unrequited love for her pal Franklin has turned her into a vitriolic lush.
The musical, following the structure of the Kaufman and Hart play, moves backward in time. The story begins in 1976 with disillusionment and despair and ends with the promise and purity of 1957. It's an unorthodox journey for a play, nevermind a musical, and the emotional dividends (one could hardly call them rewards) cover the narrow territory between remorse and regret.
"How did you get to be here?" the show's first song inquires after the tantalizing overture. "What was the moment" that, to paraphrase the sentiment, allowed your dreams to slip away from you?
"Merrily" sets out to answer these richly provocative questions, but the musical is only able to demonstrate what it establishes at the start: Franklin cares too much about money, Mary is more devoted to heartbreak and the bottle than her work, and Charley will have to sever ties with Franklin if he's to avoid falling into the same lucrative trap.
The dramatic concept is carefully worked out, but the characterizations and psychologies often seem like an afterthought. Furth, who died in 2008, is better at arranging ideas about the characters through the book's structure than he is at revealing their hearts and minds through moment-to-moment interaction. There are lulls in the show in which nothing seems to be happening but the clumsy enactment of what has already been established through the dramatic overview of the score.
One of the notorious problems of "Merrily" is that its central character, Franklin, isn't very likable. Why should we care about a guy throwing pool parties in Bel-Air who is as careless with the women in his life as he is with his own talent?
Well, Sondheim's genius, channeled into the music that Franklin writes and inspires, is a fairly compelling reason. But it helps to have an actor who can soften some of Franklin's obnoxious edges.
Lazar's Franklin provides glimpses of a tender side in the way he lovingly embraces his young son (Maximus Brandon Verso) during a visit after his acrimonious divorce from Beth (Whitney Bashor). Franklin's carefree chumminess with Charley and Mary gives credence to their long history, but the role remains an outline here. When Lazar isn't singing, he fades into the background.
Brady brings an amiable, fist-bumping smoothness to his portrayal of Charley. (The actor's illness — an attack of gout, Brady disclosed to TMZ — caused the press opening, originally scheduled for Wednesday, to be delayed to Saturday.) Brady has considerable musical chops that he puts to virtuoso effect in the number "Franklin Shepard, Inc." His singing in the second half is less assured in pitch and interpretation, though his voice retains its golden tone.
If the bond between Brady's Charley and Lazar's Franklin still seems theoretical despite the relaxed camaraderie between them, it has at least as much to do with the writing as with the inexact chemistry of Arden's cast.
Vivino, sloshing around in the costumes Dane Laffrey has designed for overweight Mary, fires off with aplomb Furth's stale one-liners, but this revival makes clear that the character needs a rewrite even more than she needs psychoanalysis. When Mary and the boys sing "Old Friends," the reality of the trio's connection flickers into existence, but the production isn't able to sustain an illusion not granularly supported by the book.
Part of the problem is the direction, which heightens the show's melodramatic stiffness. Arden adventurously resets the production in a backstage dressing room area that put me in mind of 1970s TV variety shows. (Laffrey, who did the sets as well as the costumes, is better at creating a general theatrical impression than situating us in a specific time or place.) But the opening scene, which culminates in a violent eruption, is totally unconvincing in both its abstract theatricality and florid turn into soap opera.
Travis Hagenbuch's lighting compounds the staginess by throwing an over-obvious beam on Bashor's Beth as she performs "Not a Day Goes By" in the show's first (and more savage) rendition of the classic Sondheim love song. The music is wondrous, but anyone familiar with the number from its secondary life in cabaret and concert recordings might be disappointed by the clunky handling of the context here.
The supporting company is commendably diverse, but the casting isn't always as precise as it should be. There wasn't much sensuality between Lazar's Franklin and Saycon Sengbloh's Gussie, the rising Broadway star who, like the latest object of her adulterous affection, is obsessed with getting ahead.
If the production's first half is more captivating than the second, it's because the music is more alluring. The staging becomes frantic after intermission. Mirrors are deployed in a homage to "A Chorus Line." The audience catches glimpses of itself in the swirl, the lesson being that the moral of "Merrily" applies as much to us as to the characters.
How did we all get here? Sondheim's music is again the answer. The score keeps drawing audiences to the theater just as it continues to lure directors to try their hand at a musical miracle.
"Merrily We Roll Along," however, requires another librettist to rework Furth's already heavily revised book — something Sondheim understandably opposes. Until that changes, we'll have to settle for either concert productions or well-meaning revivals like this one that set a knotty dramatic problem to majestically melancholy music.
'Merrily We Roll Along'
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 18
Tickets: $29-$110 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 746-4000, TheWallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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