Friday, March 29, 2024

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Review of the Wednesday, March 27, 2024 matinee performance at the Hudson Theatre in New York City. Starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, with Krystal Joy Brown, Katie Rose Clarke, Brady Wagner and Reg Rogers. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart. Scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour. Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker. Sound design by Kai Harada. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Choreography by Tim Jackson. Direction by Maria Friedman. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

There are shows that change the way you think about things. There are shows that make you feel good about life. Merrily We Roll Along is neither of those. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad I saw it, but I think I'm done with this show for awhile. While this production is the first to be an actual financial hit, it has mostly to do with the principal cast, and not much else.

For all the huzzahs thrown about concerning Maria Friedman's direction, it is nothing particularly revolutionary. In fact, there were long stretches where I found my mind wandering, and other times where I found myself thinking, "this is actually boring." The staging is oddly repetitive - and don't even try to talk me into it being a way to show the passage of time in reverse. Several other productions have done it more successfully. Tim Jackson's choreography (what there is of it) is fine but not much more than that. Who'd have guessed that "The Blob" would be a highlight?

The problems with the show remain. George Furth's talky book has never felt more labored to me; it reminds me of those lengthy book scenes in 1776. The characters start out in a bad place and are, by and large, unlikable and off-putting. Little care has been taken to give us even an inkling of why we should even care about them. The score remains one of Stephen Sondheim's best, full of outstanding numbers, and I found myself anxious for the next one to start. (The orchestra was superb!) Despite all of this, the emotional payoff as everything comes together at the end, er, beginning, was still satisfying. The bottom line here is that I've seen many elements of this show done much better in other productions. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

Technically, the show is, well, utilitarian and uninspired. Kai Harada's sound design is good, you could hear almost every word from the last row of the balcony where we sat, though he has no control over actors who mumble their lines. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting is serviceable, but hardly notable, and the occasional use of spotlights was distracting. While Soutra Gilmour's costumes were mostly clever (and occasionally silly to the point of distracting), her unit set is dull and reminiscent of the family room in The Brady Bunch

At the performance I saw, very close to the end of act one, all of a sudden a black curtain slowly descended. We sat in confusion. Was it time for intermission? If so, why stop mid-song? Then, after many people were already headed to the bars and bathrooms, a voice announced we were in a hold for a technical difficulty, and the show would resume shortly. And so we sat. The curtain came up the lights came back up and the stage manager called the company to the stage. The audience goes wild, the cast applauds us. And they started the last number over about a verse back from where they stopped. Then, as if by some miracle, the show had a burst of energy, the cast seemed fully engaged. Two minutes later it was over and (a very long) intermission began.

As we sat there, it clicked for me. We had been seeing a cast that was good, doing everything as directed, but with mid-run doldrums. It happens. It's just harder to swallow at premium prices. But that stoppage lit a spark in them all, and it stopped dragging, my mind stayed focused for the rest of the show, Again, they weren't bad at the start, they were... meh. Now, they were an enthusiastic company giving us the hit of the season as advertised.

The ensemble does a lot of scenery moving and walking around. The blob, indeed. There were a couple of standouts, though - Talia Simone Robinson was an interesting Meg - the next girl to catch Frank's eye, and Evan Alexander Smith was terrific in several small roles.

Brady Wagner was appropriately adorable as Frank, Jr., and Reg Rogers made a decent case for liking Joe, the producer with questionable taste in projects and even more questionable taste in wives. 


As the two women in Franklin's life, Katie Rose Clarke (as Beth, the first wife, above left) and Krystal Joy Brown (as Gussie, the second wife, above right) are a study in two extremes. Even before the show pause, Ms. Clarke was a welcome breath of fresh air, who, even at her character's lowest point, was completely captivating, and she was even more impressive in act two. Her rendition of "Not a Day Goes By" was a heartbreaking highlight, and her contribution to the nightclub act sequence was delightful. On the other hand, Ms. Brown - an actress I list among my favorites - was a disappointing mess of scenery chewing and bizarre overacting and cartoon-y affectations. Didn't that "Broadway Star" stereotype become passe after All About Eve? She made me notice Gussie more than I ever have before, and that's not a good thing. 

I'll be blunt. The entire reason that this production is the hit that it is rests with the three above the title actors in it. Any and every time the three of them were together, it was truly magical. You could feel their very genuine love for each other - true friendship simply is, it is not something you can manufacture. Of the three, Lindsay Mendez was my favorite, because every single second she was on stage, she was interesting, thoughtful and her choices were so focused and purposeful. I loved her brassy, character-driven singing, and her physicality was spot on. You could feel Mary's longing for Frank and her desperation to be noticed. What can I possibly say about Daniel Radcliffe that hasn't already been said? He is everything you've heard and more: captivating, utterly charming and heartbreaking as Charley Kringas. His rendition of "Franklin Shepard Inc." is the highlight, not just of this production, but of the season so far. His palpable chemistry with his two co-stars keeps the whole thing together.

Oddly, the one actor of the trio that I was least worried about, Jonathan Groff, was the one I liked the least. While I wouldn't exactly say that his turn was one-note, it was damned close. Even as we eventually get to see Franklin at his most hopeful and optimistic, Groff is somehow still cold and not entirely sympathetic. Up until the stoppage, he actually seemed bored and going through the motions. I mean, there's low-key and then there's uninterested. Many times, he sounded like Michael Keaton in Batman, still other times his delivery was indiscernible mumbling.

Thankfully, the last scene was just about the three of them, and we got to see what the whole thing could have been. Their "Our Time" was as emotionally satisfying as I've ever seen it. Clearly, they look forward to that scene, we are the fortunate recipients of their love for it and the relationship they portray.

I'm kicking myself for believing the hype for this production - a sure recipe for disappointment. I should have revisited my review of the filmed version of this same production from just over a decade ago. At least then, I might have tempered my expectations.

📸: M. Murphy


  1. I was at the same performance, but in the orchestra. I guess I liked it a bit better than you did. But I had seen the original production about 40 years ago. That one was an epic disaster. This one had a better cast and better design elements all around, especially costumes. I wish they gave a better explanation of why they stopped the show a minute before the act one curtain.

  2. Thanks for writing, Joseph! I really wanted to love it. Really. Did they even offer an explanation beyond "technical difficulties"? And I am envious that you saw the original, even if it was a disaster!


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