Whether or not you’ve ever seen Merrily We Roll Along (at this juncture I’ve seen five different versions) you should go see the current Fiasco Theater production at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. It’s probably my second favorite — the first one being the Huntington Theater production in Boston two Octobers ago. Both the Fiasco and Huntington productions benefit from being performed in a small theater, in contrast to the large scale productions at the Kennedy Center in 2002 and Encores! at City Center in 2012. For Merrily, above all, is an intimate show that allows us to peer into the lives of three friends and watch how their friendship deteriorated and their lives diverged — only backwards.
What it lacks in star power, the Fiasco production makes up for in fine ensemble acting, a tightening of the storyline, and tender and emotional renditions of some of Sondheim’s finest tunes: Not a Day Goes By, Our Time and Good Thing Going, as well as truly joyous renditions of Old Friends and Opening Doors. However, this small scale production also highlights drawbacks arising from changes Sondheim made to the original score. These changes include the addition of weaker songs such as The Blob and Growing Up, as well as the elevation of the character of Gussie, who not only sings these songs but now seems to occupy as much stage time as the three main characters, Franklin, Charlie and Mary. Gussie is a nasty piece of work and although Emily Young, who plays her is quite good, future interpretations of Merrily ought to reduce the character’s stage time.
Merrily is one of Sondheim’s most poignant shows, an optimistic yet heart-wrenching story that asks how do we get to where we are in life, what roads have we taken, what paths have we veered from, what friendships have we made and discarded along the way. It is a story we all know and share in one way or another, and this pared down Fiasco production gets to its very heart very nicely.