There is the “greatest generation” and then there’s the generation that came right after. Coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s provided a unique blend of adult optimism to a generation. Post World War II access to higher education meant more people than ever now saw college as a viable option. A young, attractive first family was changing the White House and creating cultural pride. It was the start of the space age and all things seemed possible. (Which is why people built bomb shelters; all things were possible.)
NY City Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along captures that time beautifully. In flashback, the story of Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger,) Frank (Colin Donnell) and Charlie (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is told; three friends making their way artistically through life. We are introduced to their middle-aged selves in 1976. The fashions, and the circumstances are a bit grim. Frank is a Hollywood sensation (and all that goes with that) and his friends feel forsaken. Mary’s relationship with alcohol is now a full-blown love affair, and while her antics are funny, she’s terribly sad. Luckily we don’t linger too long in the mid-70s. Two decades worth of seamless flashbacks ensue, and we are left at the end in 1957, when all things seemed possible.
There is much that is wonderful about this show, but the creakiness of the first act is also worth mention. The first scenes (in the 1970s) feel as bland and self-conscious as the actual 1970s. Perhaps it was intentional. There are some great songs in the first act, and I’ll admit to tearing up at the first three notes of Not A Day Goes By. The second act is nothing but perfect, as it should be; it’s when we see how they got to be who they are. In this sense, the play itself echoes the creative process. (It’s always far more interesting to create than it is to analyze the finished product.) The second act flies by with fast-paced story telling. It is rare, and exceedingly delightful when it feels as if the curtain comes much too soon.
NY City Center Encores! (musical director: Rob Berman) is a gem, bringing lesser produced musicals to the stage in concert version. Merrily, directed by James Lapine, is the first Encores! to be presented in the newly refurbished City Center. Whether because of that status, or not, this is a very different staging of an Encores! production. The productions have not been pure “concert” versions for years. Performers are completely off book (even if they do carry the script for comfort or affect) and the numbers are fully staged. There are lavish costumes and set pieces as well. Merrily We Roll Along does not have any “numbers” but has one number-lette in the second act, which is mostly tongue in cheek. What Merrily has is a realism similar to Sondheim/Furth’s Company. This starkness might feel disorienting to some, and this staging seems to only highlight the condition. The (ravishing) 23 member orchestra is on a platform one story above the stage. The performance space is black and there are about a dozen set pieces that get wheeled on and off. The only set direction is a very large video screen built into the orchestra platform. The first scene is a slide show of passing decades. Real New York City photos are shown as are photo-shopped iconic shots. There is a Forest Gump element to it all that can be very distracting. Later the screen is used very successfully to portray a theatre and a yacht. One of the best visual moments is when through clever positioning and video, the actors look to be actually sailing away.
As always with Encores!, the ensemble is first rate. There are some performances that will really linger. A small child, Zachary Unger, proves that excellent child performers do exist. Celie Keenan-Bolger is a remarkable chameleon. While Mary, is the most interesting of characters in the show, Kennan-Bolger adds dimensions that would be lost in lesser hands. Lin-Manuel Miranda also has a great character with Charley, and does it wonderful justice. His number; Franklin Shepard, Inc. is just delicious. Speaking of numbers; in Act II the three principal characters perform on two typewriters (look it up, they’re like computers without a screen) and a piano. I find myself wondering what in the world the score looked like for that.
NY City Center Encores! is a beacon of hope for musical theatre lovers. Their focus on quality of content and excellence of performance makes us believe that all things are possible.