'Merrily We Roll Along' review — Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, Lindsay Mendez show a friendship torn apart
Does anyone still pinky swear? While watching the often stirring Merrily We Roll Along led by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez, that question keeps popping up. It has each time I’ve seen the show on stage – and this version makes four since 1994.
In 1981, this Stephen Sondheim musical started out as a dud, but it also introduced some of the composer/lyricist’s most enduring songs — “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going” among them. The three stars' repeated interlocking pinkies is practically the only evidence of the pals’ bond. That’s one reason the show is a problem child.
Told in reverse chronology, George Furth's story is drawn from a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and it goes from bitter to sweet. Knowing all along how badly things turn out amplifies the emotional gut punch.
The story begins in Bel Air in 1976 at a noisy bash and rolls backward to a New York rooftop in Sputnik-era 1957. The spare residential set by Soutra Gilmour, who also designed groovy period costumes, is neutral enough to be anywhere, anytime. Musicians are tucked into an upstairs room.
Director Maria Friedman’s staging, which premiered in London in 2012 before runs in Tokyo, Boston, and now New York, is bookended by a concept that turns the musical into a memory piece. Franklin Shepard (Groff), an A-list but miserable movie producer and composer, clutches the script of an old work. Stock still, he stands facing the audience. He cranks his head right, and then left. He’s searching. For dashed dreams? Drowned friendships? His black-and-white outfit looks right for a party. Or a funeral.
A song lyric asks “How did you get to be here?” The answer emerges bit by bit. Frank’s choices wreck his relationships with writer Charley Kringas (Radcliffe) and their mutual BFF Mary Flynn (Mendez). Charley and Frank’s work partnership dies. Mary’s successful career as an author dries up, and she sinks into the bottle.
The story’s consideration of the fragility of friendships stands out. Otherwise it’s filled with showbiz go-to storylines: idealism corrupted by cash, fidelity abandoned for cheating, allegiances trumped by ambition. Frank’s marriage to Beth (Katie Rose Clarke) is essentially over before it begins. It falls victim to Frank’s neediness and roving eye, along with enticements by Gussie Carnegie (Krystal Joy Brown), who plays a series of roles in his life — star of the show he and Charley co-write, mistress, wife, and soon-to-be-ex-spouse.
Sondheim is perennially popular on NYC stages. This show’s cast has made the run at New York Theatre Workshop a sold-out event. Friedman and her leads don’t solve the nagging issue of convincingly showing the besties’ profound connection, but the acting trio’s chemistry could deepen in time.
Individually the principals step up. Radcliffe’s presence is mostly muted, but he dredges up a deep well of wild rage for “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a song depicting his TV breakdown. Mendez’s straight-up look at the past, “Like It Was,” is a direct hit to the heart. Groff deftly delivers needed cold and warm fronts as Frank.
“The Blob,” a song about hangers-on chasing the latest style (like Frank), cleverly showcases the busy ensemble. Elsewhere, as these actors strike poses and sing, they can turn grating. Those are quibbles in a show that seems bound to transfer uptown. How did you get to be here? The other question for this Merrily We Roll Along: Where do you go from here?
Merrily We Roll Along is at New York Theatre Workshop through January 21.
Photo credit: Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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