Off-Broadway Review: Fiasco Theater’s Production of “Merrily We Roll Along”

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  • Joseph Verlezza, Associate New York Critic

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” could prove to become the mantra of the famed Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along” which was a dismal failure when it first opened on Broadway in 1981. There is a new production helmed by the Roundabout’s resident Fiasco Theater Company which falls short of delivering a new efficacious incarnation, becoming yet another casualty in the history of this troublesome and puzzling show. This current endeavor lacks the emotional depth of the characters needed to successfully bring forth the message; additionally, the cast is not vocally capable of delivering most of the brilliant musical numbers. However, the orchestrations and new arrangements for the eight-piece orchestra by Alexander Gemignani allow the audience to wallow in the brilliance of Mr. Sondheim’s captivating score and are the highlight of this production.

It has been suggested that the trouble with the original production had much to do with the twist of a backward timeline running from present to past. This might have been a problem in 1981 but with so many television movies and series now using this familiar technique it is difficult to imagine that would have any negative effect on a solid production today. The plot follows the relationship of three close friends from their midlife, acerbic, and decayed friendships back to their hopeful, innocent youth after college when they set out to conquer the world and aspire to their dreams. In the last musical number “Our Time,” set on a NYC rooftop in 1957, Frank (a rather sedate Ben Steinfeld) and Charley (a convincing but too mellow Manu Narayan) are poised to write the next smash Broadway musical, while Mary (a brash but calculated Jessie Austrian) has her eye on becoming a famous novelist. This is where they first meet to witness a new beginning as Sputnik 1 entered Earth’s orbit, and they launched themselves into the world with self- proclaimed promises and close comradery. Scene one in 1979 exposes a cynical Frank, an alcoholic Mary, a broken, neurotic Charley and a welcomed revival of “Rich and Happy” a song from the original score.

The problem that evolves in this deflated production begins when the audience does not dislike the supposedly now despicable characters enough to then reverse opinion and feel empathy towards them in the optimistic ending. This is a major concern since the focus of this production seems to be strengthening the book and minimizing the emphasis on the songs which tend to be the weakest link. Notable songs such as “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By” are plagued with poor vocals or less than dramatic delivery. The massive theatrical warehouse set crammed with props, costumes and set pieces which are retrieved by the cast to create each appropriate scene, keeps your eyes busy pre-show but serves no other purpose during the performance.

Director Noah Brady moves the action along at a nice pace and makes the reversal of time clear and entertaining with some clever costume changes but fails to dig deep enough into each of these wounded characters whose dreams and relationships are shattered. This new intermission less version is lean and clean but some of what has been stripped and washed away is the dramatic weight, along with the grit and grime of the human condition. 

 

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

The cast of “Merrily We Roll Along” includes Jessie Austrian, Brittany Bradford, Manu Narayan, Ben Steinfeld, and Emily Young.

The creative team for “Merrily We Roll Along” includes Derek McLane (Scenic Design), Paloma Young (Costume Design), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design) and Peter Hylenski (Sound Design).

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) through Sunday April 7, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday through Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. with Wednesday, Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m.

Tickets for “Merrily We Roll Along” are available by calling 212-719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org, in person at any Roundabout box office, or by visiting StubHub. Ticket prices range from $99.00-119.00. Running time is

Photo: Jessie Austrian, Manu Narayan, Brittany Bradford, and Ben Steinfeld. Credit: Joan Marcus.