I saw the Lincoln Center reunion performance of Merrily We Roll Along in 2002. It was a joy to be in the room, to hear the score sung live. But the book and concept (going backward in time) did neither the cast nor the audience any favors. For all its faults, for all the confusion, there were those magnificent songs. And then, there was Ann Morrison. Every utterance layered, every note perfection. When she sang, I couldn’t help but wonder about her trajectory, her story in reverse, which moment, which turn kept her from being a star. It was one of those unforgettable performances, probably all the richer because she was old enough in 2002 to infuse it with the ache and regret she could only imagine and "act" in the original production.
Merrily We Roll Along is significant in musical theatre history. It’s failure marked the end of Sondheim’s unparalleled collaboration with Hal Prince. They wouldn’t work together again for over two decades. That break-up led to a long and often successful collaboration with James Lapine, who directs the Encores production currently running at City Center.
It is a bold approach to a concert mounting of a Sondheim musical to cast someone who can’t actually sing the music. Far bolder to do it twice. To make those choices for two of the three leads takes a director with balls, deftness, or deafness. James Lapine seems dead-set on fixing some of Merrily's historical flaws, namely a book that meanders two step forward and two decades back. By and large, he’s made welcome changes, using a series of projections, for instance, to great effect to provide linear references for a decidedly non-linear show. Unfortunately, he’s created problems no Sondheim musical should have—musical instability.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who I adored in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is delightful as Mary Flynn. She gets every joke, every jab. To watch her reverse trajectory from bitterness and cirrhosis to insecurity and hope is both delightful and devastating. Unfortunately, every time she sings, the show falls apart. She can’t hit the notes (low or high), her voice is thin and trapped in her nose, and her words are bizarrely over-articulated and unsupported. Perhaps her voice is strained from the intense and brief rehearsal period. Having enjoyed her so much previously, I am happy to give her a pass on a future performance, but not in this role. She’s half thrill, half thud.
Lin-Manuel Miranda can actually sing most of the music, he just doesn’t have a very pleasant voice; and he harmonizes like a fist-full of nails in a clothes dryer. He is similarly well-cast from an acting standpoint. His Benjamin Button aging routine is shockingly real with as much credit going to his physical inhabitation of the character as hair and make-up. He isn’t ultimately as delightful as Keenan-Bolger, nor is he as disastrous.
In the leading role Colin Donnell acquits himself best. His acting isn’t as strong as his co-stars. He plays Franklin Shepard as either unpleasant or unaware, not much else. The pompousness that I hated so much in his performance in Anything Goes, serves him better here. Not sure I would have loved his voice (it gets a little loungey at times) had his Mary and Charlie been stronger, but we both deserve the chance to find out.
The stand-out in the cast is Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie Carnegie. She sings, moves, acts, charms, and reviles with near perfection. In some ways, she is so good she undermines the gimmick of the show. Merrily is designed to shine a spotlight on those moments we all make that we don’t realize at the time will change our lives irrevocably. For the other characters, the looking back is clouded by heaviness, regret, and tragedy. Her character is so well played that her rewind just looks like a life—could have gone left, could have gone right, but ultimately went just fine. It is an interesting counterpoint. This isn’t to say that her character’s stagelife ends in a bed of roses. She just isn’t standing at a crossroads lamenting the road she didn’t take—and neither are we.