Not a day goes by that Stephen Sondheim devotees don’t wish for a production of “Merrily We Roll Along” to match the bitter yet ravishing beauty of that short-lived 1981 Broadway entry’s score. The wait may be over. Marking its fourth Sondheim staging in eight years, the Donmar Warehouse has unleashed a “Merrily” that doesn’t so much solve all this show’s problems as soar above them on wings of empathy, feeling, and an infectiously vibrant and youthful cast.
Of the five “Merrilys” I have seen (semi-staged concert perfs included) over the last two decades, this isn’t necessarily the best-sung or the best-accented — these are Brits (with one exception) playing Yanks — and some of the cruder choreographic passages trivialize the blithe exuberance of kids cutting loose.
But such cavils won’t matter to “Merrily” admirers caught up in an emotional whirlwind of roads not taken (a Sondheim constant) and friendships allowed to fray. “Someday just began,” goes a crucial lyric toward the end of the show, and with this production, “Merrily,” too, seems reborn.
For that, credit director Michael Grandage, bookending last spring’s tumultuous Donmar revival of Peter Nichols’ “Passion Play” with a scarcely less harrowing — and also ironically titled — portrait of lives and loves allowed to corrode.
And just as Adrian Lester at this same address put the anti-heroic Bobby back at the center of “Company” in 1995, so, too, does a gifted 24-year-old newcomer named Julian Ovenden redefine for keeps the troubled Franklin Shepard’s backward journey to his youth as the forward-looking high schooler engaged in a cautionary face-off with the unhappy adult, Grant Russell’s Older Franklin, whom the teenager, “Follies”-style, grows to be.
Grandage and Co. have restored the framing device, complete with the anthemic “Hills of Tomorrow,” of Hal Prince’s briefly seen Broadway premiere, while keeping rewrites to a minimum. (“That Frank,” for instance, has reverted to the original “Rich and Happy.”) Instead, Grandage’s keen directorial eye suggests a moral that could have come right out of this show: Nothing succeeds like truth.
To that end, Ovenden’s bruisingly honest rendering sustains our interest as well as sympathy in a hitherto sour character, as we whiz backward from the Hollywood sellout he is at the start to a penultimate rooftop epiphany in which Franklin, like Sputnik-era America, is bursting with hope. The perf captures the confusion of a man more acted upon than active, who has “lost his way,” or so we’re told, even as Ovenden never loses a smile capable of melting ice.
It’s long been the Donmar way to turn musicals into sung plays, so that a Broadway-style bravado gets sacrificed to textual explication. But that can’t by itself account for the invigorating scalpel that Grandage has taken to a George Furth book that can seem crass and ultimately preachy but here prompts one rending moment after another — with no small help from Sondheim.
Playing Charley Kringas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist who falls out with his onetime best friend and collaborator, a wigged Daniel Evans (late of the National Theater “Candide”) doesn’t possess the attack for a sung tirade like “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” But when he stops himself short, confessing to “getting in too deep,” one feels Grandage aiming this musical right where it hurts — at lacerations amplified by a backward structure that, “Betrayal”-style, gives virtually every moment at once an immediacy and a retroactive sting. (Sondheim and Furth rooted their chronology in the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.)
How can your heart not bleed when Charley offers up “Good Thing Going,” as if aware that its lyrical lamentation is fully prophetic? Or when Franklin asks writer-friend Mary (Samantha Spiro), “Did anybody ever tell you you say all of the right things?”
By then, we know what all three “old friends” have yet to learn: Mary will become a truth-teller of the most abusive and drunken sort — what else? she becomes a critic, after all — while Charley turns bitterly against Franklin’s newfound chums, power and money. As Ovenden plays him, Franklin is less a bad man than simply weak, and the golden-voiced performer makes of the plaintive “Growing Up” a sorrowful argument with his own divided self.
(Back to the dialect coach, however, on both “irrevocably” and “nudge.” Similarly, James Millard’s sterlingly sung Joe Josephson doesn’t come naturally by a Yiddishism like “meshugenah.”)
The production boasts a brilliant siren in the Gussie of Anna Francolini, an unimpressive purveyor of “Another Hundred People” in “Company” who is this cast’s most singular surprise. “I am inches from an asylum,” she intones grandly, not long after soiling the dress of Beth (an appealing Mary Stockley), Franklin’s first wife, whom Gussie will go on to supplant — before she, in turn, gets the boot. Francolini plays the role far less shrilly than it normally comes across, and she sends true shock waves through the house, goading Franklin into ever darker self-revelations (him: “I hated my father”; her enthusiastic reply: “good”) that give Gussie the upper hand.
As kind, at least at the ending (which is to say the beginning) as Gussie is conniving, Spiro’s open-faced Mary is at her best in the reprise of “Not a Day Goes By,” bearing witness to Beth’s marriage to Franklin. Mary — in Tim Mitchell’s lighting — is spotlighted as the lovesick outsider, and Spiro’s perf, replete with cleverly shed physical padding, will surely grow still further once a voice weakened by infection (three-and-a-half of this production’s eight previews were canceled) recovers the resounding colors of which it is clearly capable.
Meanwhile, the shadings within “Merrily” itself are abundantly there for the taking, notwithstanding dances from Peter Darling (of “Billy Elliot” renown) that make a fetish of circular movement while rarely freeing up the performers. (In kinetic terms, the first-act finale, “Now You Know,” is easily the most buoyant.)
Christopher Oram’s set serves the show by improving upon the ghastly jungle-gym look of the Broadway original. But its prevailing wooden sheen is a touch lacking in character. “It’s our time, breathe it in,” they sing exultantly, and Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations for the nine-piece band capture every last shimmer of that questing score. You can feel a collective intake of breath as “Merrily’s” audience participates as one in the search for something pure, knowing full well that our already fractious century — like this remorseful musical — is steeped in pain.