Merrily We Roll Along review – Sondheim flop finds new lease of life

It is a paradox of human existence that while we experience life forward, we understand it in reverse. Only by journeying, backward, from present to past, can we comprehend the choices that form and deform us. Fans of Stephen Sondheim, George Furth and Hal Prince still return to the problem of what went wrong with Merrily We Roll Along, the legendary Broadway failure that closed abruptly in 1981. That’s probably why the show receives a significant revival every decade or so. Surely one day we’ll understand. Surely one day we’ll get it right.

Related: Some Like It Hot review – Broadway adaptation is lukewarm

It’s doubtful that anyone will get it righter than director Maria Friedman. A former actor and a sensitive and lucid interpreter of Sondheim’s work, she lends clarity and humanity to the revival of Merrily now playing at New York Theatre Workshop. Informed by her 2012 Menier Chocolate Factory production, this version stars Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez as a trio of friends disillusioned after two decades amid the gutters and stars of Hollywood and Broadway. Friedman’s interpretation will probably be regarded as a gold standard. But even here, despite that indelible sour-sweet score, the gold is short a few carats. Some choices, it would seem, can’t be unmade, no matter how acute our hindsight.

Famously, Merrily, based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the same name, is a story told the wrong way around. It begins in 1976, when the friendship among Frank (Groff), a composer, Charlie (Radcliffe), a playwright and Mary (Mendez, in a role that Friedman once played), a novelist turned journalist turned drunk, has become irrevocably tarnished. Scene by scene the show retreats, eventually landing in 1957, on a rooftop, with the three together for the first time, flush with youth and promise. This means that sometimes we hear a motif before we understand it, or encounter a reprise (like the devastating Not a Day Goes By) before the original song sounds. (Speaking of sound, an excellent nine-piece band huddles in a loft delivering the jazzy, brassy, yearning score.)

There are stories from that first disastrous production of the audience walking out because they couldn’t understand the action, of the principals wearing sweatshirts with their names on them so that the audience could tell them apart. That seems unthinkable here. The storytelling is crisp and the time jumps, accented by Soutra Gilmour’s costume design, are clear and distinct. Gilmour also designed the set, a mid-century Los Angeles mansion. Curtains and light fixtures swing in and out, but the frame remains. We are in Frank’s world, Friedman’s production suggests, inhabiting the sharper corners of his memory.

Frank can often come across as a jerk, a sellout. But this framing device softens him. If he is pulled back into the past, then it must be his own unhappiness, his own irresolution doing the tugging. It helps, too that Groff has boyishness to him and a niceness backing up that flexible, emotive voice. His Frank seems less craven than pragmatic.

Maybe this was the real unspoken problem with that first production, that audiences resisted following a character they didn’t like. But Friedman has solved this. Frank is more likable now and his sins – wanting to make a little movie, dubious taste in second wives – are forgivable. In this light, he seems to be a projection of Sondheim’s own anxieties. How did he balance commerce and art? What did he sacrifice along the way?

If Radcliffe’s voice is not extraordinary, his particular energy is, and he brings a manic liveliness to Charlie, which slants toward something darker and less stable in the song Franklin Shepard, Inc. Mendez has heart and range and a rich, robust timbre. She lacks the absolute control for Mary’s breakdown, but she is engaging in the early scenes when Mary’s hope still outweighs her despair. Reg Rogers is typically exuberant as Joe, a Broadway producer, and Krystal Joy Brown has glamour and malice as his wife.

How we become older and presumably wiser, or at least more reconciled, is a recurring theme in Sondheim’s work and one he articulates handsomely in the opening number. “What was the moment? / How did you get to be here?” the chorus sings. Yet even now, in Friedman’s nimble hands, the answers offered by Furth’s book and even Sondheim’s lyrics feel thin. The structure means that the characters can’t properly analyze or reflect on their actions and the script doesn’t give Charlie or Mary the attention they deserve.

Oh well. Just roll with it.