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It still doesn’t roll, exactly, and it’s never been especially merry, but Merrily We Roll Along looks less and less like the train wreck critics described when it opened on Broadway.

That was a little over 20 years ago, of course, and Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators have had several stabs at fixing the problems they weren’t able to find the first time around; there have been at least three major revisions, including a new second-act opener for the famously unhappy Arena Stage revival in 1990. The book is still a merely workmanlike adaptation of an unwieldy play (by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), and some of the lyrics aren’t really up to Sondheim’s standard. (The title number, which repeats as shamelessly as any Andrew Lloyd Webber tune, is a thinly written thing that rhymes “bumpy” and “grumpy,” among other offenses.) But the score is still one of his richest and most tuneful, and though there’s still that central hurdle—how to keep audiences hooked on a story told in reverse and a protagonist who seems unlikable at the start—director Christopher Ashley more or less manages to clear it in his staging for the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration.

He gets a substantial boost from the charismatic Michael Hayden in the central part—that of a talented Broadway composer who, by the opening scene, has betrayed his ideals, his family, his two best friends, and even his gift. Hayden, who managed to humanize a similarly flawed character in the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sweet Bird of Youth a couple of seasons back, seems a surprisingly winning loser even at the outset. Sure, his Franklin Shepard has sold out to Hollywood—at 40, he’s ditched theater and music to become, in the words of his embittered second wife, a box-office-oriented movie producer “whose work isn’t remembered by the time audiences reach the parking lot”—but something about the actor’s unthreatening, understated style makes the character’s choices more regrettable than repellent.

Maybe we’re willing to wait for the unorthodox structure to hook us because, among other things, Hayden’s genuinely conflicted agreeableness helps clarify the extent to which Frank’s story, in which life’s more alluring comforts come between an artist and his talent, is a kind of fun-house-mirror reflection of the one at the center of Sunday in the Park With George, in which an artist’s demanding muse destroys his attempts at a life; Frank’s may be a less noble failure, to be sure, but it’s just as sad.

That thread of thematic connection seems stronger than ever at the Kennedy Center, if only because Raul Esparza, who headlined the Sunday run that ended June 28, has traded in George’s paintbrushes to play the second of Merrily’s three starring roles—and because his character, lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas, clings every bit as stubbornly to his ideals as Sunday’s title character (though he, unlike George, wins critical acclaim during his lifetime, underscoring the bankruptcy of Frank’s choices). And if it’s Charley’s inflexibility as much as Frank’s compromises that drive the onetime collaborators apart, it’s Esparza’s hugely appealing performance, as much as any other single element, that helps hold this Merrily together.

He makes a splash with his first big number, a perilous tongue-twister about how the bottom-line pressures of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” are getting in the way of what used to be an unbeatable creative partnership. (“Very sneaky how it happens/Much more sneaky than you think,” goes the lyric; “Start with nothing but a song to sing/Next you’re Franklin Shepard…Inc.”) The tune is a runaway spiral of comic exasperation and genuine, long-suppressed rage, and Esparza nails not just the anger and the humor but the anguished bewilderment at how a lifelong friendship got so badly off track. It is, as it should be, a literal showstopper.

And miraculously, as the show keeps moving forward and the years keep moving backward, Esparza no less than Hayden contributes to a growing sense of promise in a relationship we already know is doomed. That’s the real measure of this Merrily’s success, I expect; even though we know how Frank’s story ends, Ashley and his cast seduce us into caring about him—well before the Act 1 finale sends him off on a midcareer cruise-ship hiatus designed to help him refocus his creative energies.

The other above-the-title name in the show’s central threesome is Miriam Shor, who plays Charley and Frank’s novelist best friend—and sings the part in a wonderfully supple, convincingly robust soprano. Her Mary isn’t exactly a weak link (her acting is just fine), but as written the character is always caught between the other two, always trying to bring them together, rarely arguing a case of her own. It makes Mary just slightly less compelling, though Shor does find moments of real warmth to highlight here and there.

Ashley gets invaluable assistance, too, from the major supporting players, including Anastasia Barzee and Adam Heller as wronged spouses and Emily Skinner (Broadway’s Side Show) as the deliciously wicked stage siren whose ambition is only one of the seductions that provoke Frank to join her in doing the wronging. Area regulars from Jason Gilbert and Ty Hreben to Sherri L. Edelen and Amy McWilliams easily hold their own alongside their New York-based counterparts in the ensemble, which gets plenty of entertaining business—especially in two big party scenes that subject the poseur elites of both New York and L.A. to an equal measure of Sondheim’s scorn.

And that, of course, is one of the reasons Merrily will never be a huge audience-pleaser. (There are others, including the inescapable fact that as we get closer to finding out what Frank and Charley and Mary were like when their friendship was fresh and new, the less complex and therefore less interesting the triangle becomes.) But mainly, Merrily’s abiding weakness is this: There aren’t all that many people who can afford a full-price ticket to a Broadway musical, even if it’s a $76 orchestra seat at Broadway-on-the-Potomac, and a good many of those who can are precisely the sort of cocktail-party habitues who take such a drubbing in numbers such as “That Frank” and “The Blob.” Even some of the die-hard Sondheim fans in the standee ranks might confess, once they step out of the theater and confront the compromises in their own lives, to feeling the chill of the master’s condescension—and it’s hard to really love a show that sometimes seems to be trying to make you hate yourself. CP