Sixteen seems to be a significant number for ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ In 1981, this show, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, played sixteen performances on Broadway, and here we are now at 2016. with grand revival directed by Michael Arden at The Wallis Annenberg Center of Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California. There have been some performances for this problematic show since then – an off Broadway revival, some concert performances, an Encores! production – but it has never gone back on the Broadway boards. Back then, the consensus was that the non-linear format of the show was a struggle, and audiences were confused. But there’s a lot of brilliance there, and there is that often quoted Clive Barnes line: “Whatever you may have heard about it — go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus.”
The book is still a bit of a mess, and reportedly Sondheim doesn’t want it revised in any way. But Arden (He is the Artist In Residence for Wallis Annenberg) uses devices to make things a little more manageable. There is a lot of characters in the scene, and in his staging, those not most pertinent in the scene act as voyeurs. The main characters of the piece – Frank, Mary and Charlie – are front and center most of the time, and the corresponding actors – Aaron Lazar, Donna Vivino, and Wayne Brady are all more than competent in holding the stage. Lazar has great leading man presence and I was pleasantly surprised by Brady’s comedic timing and musicality. However, Vivino is the real star of the show for me, with her solid voice caressing these wonderful Sondheim standards. I can’t think of a throwaway song here, and Vivino singing ‘Not A Day Goes By’ at Frank’s wedding will haunt me for a long time.
But there are limitations – you don’t know who to root for – and by the time you realize the conceit of the show, you kind of scratch your head and try to remember how it ‘started.’ But as Barnes said, judge for yourself. I have a very particular affinity for the score – for me, Sondheim’s second best only to ‘Passion’ – so I had a great emotional connection to this production.