“Merrily We Roll Along” rolls triumphantly back to town as the opening attraction of the 2012 season at City Center Encores! The troubled piece — a 16-performance failure when it opened in 1981 — has undergone continual revision by Stephen Sondheim, the late George Furth (who wrote the original book) and director/playwright James Lapine. Built-in problems in the narrative, which lumbers backwards from 1976 to 1957, remain, but this seems the best of all possible “Merrilys.” Sondheim fans will heartily approve.
“Merrily” holds a unique place in Sondheim’s canon; his 11th Broadway musical, coming just after “Sweeney Todd,” was a quick and outright failure, effectively ending the author’s 24-year association with producer-director Harold Prince. While “Merrily” was based on a long-forgotten Kaufman and Hart play, the two young artists mapping their creative future in the musical version were consciously patterned on the young Sondheim and Prince.
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The Encores! show essentially follows the version devised by Furth and Lapine for the 1985 production at the La Jolla Playhouse, albeit with numerous later changes. Lapine is here credited for the adaptation, which reassigns some songs and has some bigger laugh lines. The show also has been reorchestrated by Jonathan Tunick (based on his original charts), since the post-1981 musical material had never been orchestrated for a Broadway-sized band. Rob Berman leads his 23-piece orchestra with style, and Sondheim’s score sounds very good indeed.
Colin Donnell, moonlighting from his gig as leading man over at “Anything Goes,” sings well enough but doesn’t quite pull off the leading role of Franklin Shepard. Like Bobby in the Sondheim-Furth “Company,” the character is difficult in part because the supporting players have showier material. Those supports are well represented here by Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley Kringas, who makes the most of his nervous breakdown-in-song, and Celia Keenan-Bolger (one of the leads of “Peter and the Starcatchers”) as the Dorothy Parker-like Mary Flynn.
Strong assists come from Adam Grupper as producer Joe Josephson, Elizabeth Stanley as stage star Gussie Carnegie (wife to both Franklin and Joe as the plot roles backward) and Betsy Wolfe in the seemingly reduced role of Franklin’s first wife. Eight-year-old Zachary Unger, is especially good as the boy stuck in Franklin’s custody battle.
This Encores! concert staging is slickly produced, with screens for extensive projections built into the face of the unit set. While the projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) help illuminate the proceedings, they occasionally draw attention from the characters. More extensive than most Encores! sets, this one requires entrances and exits from atop the bandstand, which result in departing actors climbing stairs in full view of the audience, detracting from the scene still in progress.
The show is in for a 15-perf run, as opposed to Encores! standard of five or six. This latest version might not thoroughly solve the piece’s inherent problems, but it offers theater fans an entertaining opportunity to catch the little-seen show.