Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around.
They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new discoveries and pleasures found in the 1981 musical (based on the 1934 melodrama by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) as it follows a group of friends backwards in time from cynical middle-age to their idealistic younger selves.
This revival comes from the Fiasco Theatre Company — known for its stripped-down productions — and here features six actors playing all the roles, which may make it appealing for the provinces eager to try their hand at the show, too. Like the characters they play at the beginning of their mid-century Manhattan careers, this cast brims with nerve, energy and overreach.
The problem isn’t the time-traveling aspects of the musical, but the shaky foundation of its arts-versus-commerce stakes. All the rest is simply rearranging the dramaturgical furniture, though in this production, director Noah Brody has a keen eye for revelatory details that perk up scenes and deepen characters.
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“Now You Know,” the song where journalist/novelist Mary (Jessie Austrian) and lyricist-playwright Charlie (Manu Narayan) try to lift the spirits of composer Frank (Ben Steinfeld, terrific) after his divorce, is now a nuanced, more dramatically telling number instead of the same-old pick-me-up. “Old Friends” also nicely shows the intricate ties that binds them together, even ending with a hat tip to “Design for Living.”
In this version, Frank becomes slightly more likable, especially in contrast to the others, which is a big help for this otherwise bland character. An added scene with his in-laws (taken from the original play) gets Frank more sympathy, too, though it does no favors for his wife Beth (Brittany Bradford). Charlie here is more of a nudge, yet remains steadfast — until he reaches the breaking point, spectacularly, in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Both Narayan and Steinfeld have the strongest voices in the cast and deliver on their numbers big time, especially in Frank’s “Growing Up,” a welcome addition from an earlier revival, and a song that deepens the character as well as the themes of the show.
Vocally, the rest of the cast just isn’t up to the task. And while some details of the script are enhanced in the staging and the playing, others are diminished.
Mary’s longing for Frank hardly registers; Beth here becomes more shrill and unsympathetic; “Good Thing Going” sung by Gussie (Emily Young) is unnecessarily tacky and hardly the stuff of a “hit.” Some original set pieces remain iffy: “The Blob” has better echoes in other shows and the long Kennedy spoof becomes more tiresome with each revival. The producer Joe (Paul L. Coffey) remains a peripheral character. And does anyone really have any interest in seeing “Take a Left,” the team’s unrealized artistic dream? (“Hamilton” shows that art can be commercial, too.)
Derek McLane’s compartmentalized set, crammed with several lifetimes of stuff, supplements the minimalist cast with visual variety. Witty and specific choreography by Lorin Latarro also enlivens scenes, as do Alexander Gemignani’s orchestrations and new arrangements.
What always packs an emotional punch is the show’s last 15 minutes, packed with back-to-back numbers that still elicit goosebumps, if not a tear or two: the youthful explosion of possibilities in “Opening Doors,” and then the poignant “Our Time,” which both layers the hopefulness of youth with the knowledge of the sad endgame. No matter what the latest attempt to rescue “Merrily We Roll Along,” these numbers still deliver time after time after time.