“Merrily We Roll Along” off-Broadway is Sondheim’s musical anew

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NEW YORK — In life, as God and Stephen Sondheim understand, we roll along whether or not we choose to do so merrily.

But if ever there was a musical about how our youthful idealism and personal loyalties are so often sacrificed on the tawdry altar of getting ahead, ever a show about how darn stupid most of us turn out to be, ever a show about how we blow our most important relationships and friendships for … what? what? Then “Merrily We Roll Along” is that masterpiece.

I watched director Maria Friedman’s stunning, revelatory production at the New York Theatre Workshop (it originated a the Menier Chocolate Factory in London) through a kind of moist-eyed haze, mind racing, heart beating and all that stuff. For starters, the musical, written by Sondheim and George Furth and first seen on Broadway in 1981, is a work of genius. (And, yes, it’s even better than “Into the Woods.”)

Take, for example, how “Merrily” uses the song “Not a Day Goes By” as both a love song, an exquisite ballad of need and adoration, and, following a bitter divorce proceeding, as a truly agonizing reminder that we all get wounded in different ways by our failed relationships.

Past loves, not to mention previous lies, imprint themselves on our souls and they cannot be shaken off, whatever all our talk about moving on and other such self-deluding pablum in which even the great Sondheim occasionally indulged.

In “Merrily,” a relatively early work about show business, the rewards it afford and the price it extracts from a quartet of young, creative friends named Franklin, Mary, Charley and Beth, he already knew the truth: you might have a good thing going, it might be your time, but it’s brief and you eventually have to toil to try and keep it that way. And it will turn, as we all do, to dust.

Friedman’s production, which demands with every note to be back on Broadway, features four blisteringly emotional and deeply rooted performances from Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, Daniel Radcliffe, and Katie Rose Clarke. All dig deep trenches and the show is especially propelled by how richly Groff links his vocal excitement, energy and power to his character’s calcified well of emptiness. Mendez immerses herself in Mary’s bitterness to spectacular effect and, as idealistic Charley, Radcliffe dances very deftly on the edge of hope and denial, showing us a young man who sings about how unlimited he feels, but also sits in terror that he is about to crash on the shores of his own emotional limits, not to mention the betrayal of his pals.

What makes Friedman’s approach so distinctive? (The deceptively sardonic set and deliciously, pathetically pretentious costumes are from the brilliant Soutra Gilmour.)

It’s pretty simple, really.

Most every other production, including Hal Prince’s Broadway original, has focused on the youth of the young writers and composers. But that is not what the show, which moves backward in chronology, is really about. It’s about being old, about having regrets born of shattering personal errors and callousnesses and no one in this cast can ever pretend to be that young. They all have tread on their tires. That’s what the show needed all these years.

Add in Friedman’s relentless focus on mortality, desperation and paradox, the triplets of everyone’s personal apocalypse, and you have one stunner of a show. “White Lotus” fans will realize who got there first.

Conventional wisdom has it that “Merrily We Roll Along” starts with a roar and ends with a whimper. Maybe that is the case, but Friedman and this extraordinarily talented clutch of actors make darn sure that it’s a hollow whimper, its promise thoroughly undermined by the subsequent horrors that we already have seen unfold before our eyes and, of course in song.

We see our heroes thwarted by the temptations of those like the avaricious actress, Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown) and, yet worse, the cynically demanding producer Joe (Reg Rogers). Abandon all hope of happiness ye who do business with him.

Friedman, a veteran star of the stage herself, knows every inch of this treacherous living landscape and, merrily, verily, her loyal crew go along with her cheerily and unknowingly to the brink.

Once they arrive? It’s too late.

Through Jan. 21 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th St., New York; www.nytw.org

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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