Merrily We Roll Along tries to reel in the years, again
The famed theatrical disappointment Merrily We Roll Along can’t change it spots, but oh how the new revival at New York Theatre Workshop tries. Director Maria Friedman has lugged her 2012 Menier Chocolate Factory staging across the pond, now with Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard, a talented composer who has abandoned Broadway for Hollywood and his sweet Southern wife for a show biz shrew; Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn, a talented writer turned a little sour and hitting the sauce a lot; and Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas, Franklin’s former friend and professional partner.
Friedman hasn’t figured out a way solve the show’s structural problems (it’s told backwards, charting the characters’ lives in reverse from early forties to early twenties) nor its thematic one: it’s really not that tragic for friends who began working together in adulthood to grow apart, especially when they continue to prosper financially and in their chosen careers. There’s nothing to mourn, but this expanded production also creates an imbalance between Franklin and his old friends, shunting both of them further and further to the edges, making the only interesting characters to minor ones – Franklin’s paramour Gussie (an outstanding Krystal Joy Brown) and Joe, the manager she left for him (Reg Rogers, working minor miracles every minute he appears).
Even late composer Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated score, with reprises of songs happening even as the score is sung in reverse, doesn’t get its due – “Not a Day Goes By” doesn’t land. Ardent fans insist there’s more to the show than multiple revivals, including this one, will show, but perhaps that’s all there is.