Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of musicals. While the music is gorgeous, the structure and characters are problematic, so the 1981 show never fully caught the hearts of audiences and has been relegated to the status of underappreciated cult classic.
Apparently, all it needed was a little love.
Signature Theatre’s chic and knowing revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” by Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is based on a 1992 revision of the show that worked out some of the plot problems and strengthened certain characters and relationships by going back to the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play that was adapted by George Furth for the musical’s book.
Everything about this show works: the top-drawer cast; the bold, hyperkinetic energy peculiar to the ‘60s and ‘70s; Jonathan Tunick”s brassy orchestrations that recall the heyday of Herb Alpert; James Kronzer’s blinding white curved staircase set; and Robert Perdziola’s body-hugging period costumes rendered in acid greens and blues, screaming checks and plaids.
The show’s structure has it racing backward through time, from 1975 to 1959. In times of bubbling change and chaos, who can you depend on? For the three main characters of “Merrily,” it is their friends. The musical maps out the evolving — and dissolving — three-cornered friendship between successful, seen-it-all composer Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore), his lyricist and college buddy Charley Kringas (Erik Liberman) and their Dorothy Parker-esque female sidekick Mary Flynn (Tracy Lynn Olivera).
The show begins on a cynical, sour note, as Franklin oozes around his Hollywood manse surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, as illustrated in the song “That Frank.” It should be the happiest night of his life, but instead his life’s unraveling around him — his wife Gussie (Tory Ross, radiating the larger-than-life brio of a Broadway legend) knows about his affair with a young starlet, Mary’s making boozy scenes, and Frank’s jealous that his estranged friend Charley has won the Pulitzer Prize for his play.
“Merrily” moves somewhat somberly back through the years, tracing the on-air scuffle that prompted the split between Frank and Charley (depicted in the perky, syncopated furor of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), as well as Mary’s sad attempts to recapture the trio’s old camaraderie (the sublime “Old Friends” and “Like It Was”) and cling to her unrequited love for Frank.
The first act is shadowstruck and rueful, becoming brighter and optimistic as the years peel off. You cannot help but feel a wistful nostalgia at the novelty song, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” performed by Frank and Charley and Frank’s sweet first wife Beth (Bayla Whitten) in the early days, when they had an Elaine May-Mike Nichols-style musical revue.
Mr. Schaeffer keeps the show lean, with only a small ensemble and a handful of enormously gifted actors in the leads. Mr. Gartshore contributes a strong performance as Frank, gently humanizing a character normally portrayed as an egotistical schmuck. Miss Olivera brings a satiny voice and a brittle majesty to Mary Flynn, eternally the smartest woman in the room. Mr. Liberman brings artistry to the insecurities and angst of the antsy intellectual Charley.
“Merrily” has been accused of being a cynical concept musical about the price of fame, but this production strives for finer feelings in its depiction of how time can erode long-standing friendships. The killer emotion comes with the show’s final song, “Our Time.” Standing on the roof scanning the sky for a glimpse of Sputnik, their whole lives spread before them like a magic carpet, the three friends are brimming with hope and dreams and their joy in being together. It is here that their choices, their rivalries and jealousies, all the things said and unsaid, coalesce into something beautiful and greatly stirring.
WHAT: “Merrily We Roll Along,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 14.
TICKETS: $40 to $69
WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS