Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s friendship-themed musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” a 1981 flop adaptation of the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that has become a cult favorite in the Sondheim canon, receives an underwhelming revival at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park that has nothing to do with its actors doubling as the orchestra.
In fact, Tony Award-winning director John Doyle’s actor-musician concept, a love it or hate it maneuver in the eyes of most theatergoers, is used to the same dynamic degree as his critically acclaimed productions of “Sweeney Todd” (nominated for the 2006 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical and featuring cellist Benjamin Magnuson of Kettering as Anthony Hope) and “Company” (originated at the Playhouse in the Park in 2006 and won the 2007 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical). With marvelous assistance from musical supervisor/orchestrator Mary-Mitchell Campbell, he has truly mastered the art of presenting Sondheim’s splendid music with strikingly intricate intimacy without losing any morsel of dramatic resonance. Using a cello for a bit of foreboding underscore is a particularly fine touch. However, Doyle, who previously staged “Merrily” in a similar manner at the U.K.’s Watermill Theatre in 2008, missteps directorially with awkward storytelling choices and the desire for a bleak, melancholy tone.
Chronicled in reverse from Hollywood 1976 to New York 1957, the musical concerns the triumphs and tribulations that bind close friends Franklin Shepard (a composer-turned-hotshot film producer), Charley Kringas (Franklin’s lyricist) and Mary Flynn (a writer who assumes the role of motivating mediator while secretly pining for Franklin). The trio is deeply bruised and ultimately torn apart by Franklin’s narcissistic success and destructive marriage to actress Gussie Carnegie (one of the most polarizing characters in musical theater history). Anger and bitterness consumes the characters at the outset, which can be alienating and off-putting, but their engrossing journey, sharply detailing the relatable consequences of perilous decisions, fortunately culminates with great hope.
Unlike traditional “Merrily” mountings, including last month’s delightful New York City Center Encores! presentation, Doyle oddly demands strict seamlessness (there is no intermission and no opportunity to applaud after each number) and particularly opts for middle-aged actors in the leading roles rather than casting twentysomethings or thirtysomethings. This change of pace is effective in the opening scenes, but is very difficult to accept in context as the actors, stylishly clothed in shades of blue 1970s garb by Tony winner Ann Hould-Ward, travel back in time. As so, the spirited spunk and innocent sense of wonder permeating scenes/numbers in the 1950s and 1960s (such as “Our Time,” “Opening Doors” and “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”) just doesn’t convey an impactful believability. His decision to ground the show as a downhearted portrait of a midlife crisis is simply problematic since half of the material explores the thrill of youthful optimism. Still, the most perplexing, vague element involves Frank Jr., a tiny role expanded/reinterpreted as a framing device. In an unnecessary attempt to keep Franklin and Frank Jr. mysteriously connected throughout the entire show, the potency of Franklin, Charley and Mary’s inseparable bond is reduced. Franklin is certainly the key catalyst who genuinely adores music more than anything in the world (wonderfully realized in the explosion of sheet music enveloping Tony winner Scott Pask’s stunning set), but Doyle unevenly overemphasizes his legacy. After all, the show is not titled “Merrily He Rolls Along.”
Artistic shortcomings aside, Doyle’s versatile 13-member cast is predominately admirable. Malcolm Gets, a terrific vocalist and pianist winningly showcased in “Growing Up,” is a credibly jaded, haunted and wounded Franklin, propelling the show to the point of being perceived as an introspective musical nightmare. Becky Ann Baker, a likable Mary, has difficulty with the vocal demands of the score and sustaining the remarkable impression she makes in the first 15 minutes, specifically during and after “That Frank.” As Charley, Daniel Jenkins consistently engages, offering captivating renditions of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Good Thing Going.” Leenya Rideout, an adept cellist and violinist, slithers seductively as the unappealing Gussie but is cemented in irksome iciness. Jane Pfitsch, lovely as Franklin’s first wife Beth, is a heartbreaking, vulnerable presence, providing two vastly distinct interpretations of “Not a Day Goes By,” the musical’s signature tune and one of Sondheim’s best ballads. Bruce Sabath (Joe Josephson), Jessica Tyler Wright (K.T.), Lee Harrington (Meg) and David Garry (Jerome) are also notable in featured roles. Matt Castle, Matthew Deming, Ben Diskant and Fred Rose complete the ensemble. The first-rate contributions of lighting designer Jane Cox and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier are additionally noteworthy.
I don’t foresee this production following in the footsteps of “Company” by obtaining a Broadway transfer. “Merrily” is one of Sondheim’s most accessible works, but this impassive version keeps its distance, failing to magnify the joy and emotional profundity pulsating amid the disillusionment and regret. I have been routinely impressed by Doyle (his 2008 off-Broadway staging of Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Road Show” was superb), but he took a huge risk reconceiving such an inherently complex show. In the end, I liked it the way that it was.
“Merrily We Roll Along” continues through March 31 in the Marx Theatre of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, located atop Mount Adams in Eden Park. The production is performed in 1 hour and 50 minutes without intermission. Performances are Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. There will be a special matinee Wednesday, March 28 at 1 p.m. Tickets are $25-$71. For tickets or more information, call 1-800-582-3208 or visit www.cincyplay.com