Male, Pattern, Coldness: Franklin?s bad moves recede before our eyes.
Male, Pattern, Coldness: Franklin?s bad moves recede before our eyes.

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Not a week goes by that I don’t hum “Not a Day Goes By,” and I suspect I’m not alone. That exquisite ballad—aching with longing and loss, soaring with feeling—is a near-perfect articulation of the havoc wreaked on relationships by time and by life’s betrayals. So perfect, in fact, that it has always seemed cruel that Merrily We Roll Along, the backward-wending Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical it comes from, is less so.

Known chiefly for its back-to-front storytelling—cynical middle age characters get youth-enized scene by scene, growing ever more innocent and hopeful—Merrily boasts one of Sondheim’s most tunefully accessible scores wedded to a decidedly sour “happy” ending—kids buoyant with dreams we’ve already watched being dashed.

Which has not kept this supremely showbizzy show from finding champions. With three (!) original cast albums so far, Merrily is forever being remounted, revised, rethought. Here in D.C., it was tackled by Catholic University just weeks after its disastrous Broadway run; then by Arena Stage a decade later in a version reworked by the authors; and then five years ago by the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration in a reworking of that reworking.

Now, a quarter century after its premiere, the script is more or less set, and Eric Schaeffer—who has made Sondheim Signature Theatre’s signature artist—is finally having a go at it. And a glamorous go at that, with a floating 13-piece orchestra and a white-on-white setting by James Kronzer that looks like something Busby Berkeley might have conjured for a stairway-to-the-stars number.

The setting makes intriguing sense of our presence at the event, just in case anyone has arrived feeling that the souring of dreams is a merely academic notion. To get to the auditorium, high above street level, the audience must ascend a curved grand staircase; on arrival, they find that staircase more or less duplicated in reverse on the set, swirling down to the left—counterclockwise, of course—to a gleaming white disk of a stage that looks not unlike the face of a clock. At its center is a grand piano backed by a towering white door and flanked by what look like glowing blocks of ice topped with cocktail glasses.

This turns out to be the palatial Hollywood manse of Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore), a one-time Broadway composer who has abandoned his musical calling to become a hack movie producer. With only one friend left in the world—Mary Flynn (Tracy Lynn Olivera), an alcoholic critic he’ll manage to alienate by scene’s end—and surrounded by all the vapid party guests that money can buy, he is utterly miserable.

How did he get to this sorry state? Well, after Franklin’s second wife, Gussie (Tory Ross), hurls iodine into the eyes of his latest mistress, the authors will start to make that clear, with the cast dancing away the years as the characters grow younger—and closer—by painful stages. We meet Franklin’s theatrical collaborator Charley (Erik Liberman) on the day their friendship self-destructs and encounter Franklin’s first wife, Beth (Bayla Whitten), at their divorce proceedings. Then the tale spins back, always to happier, more carefree, more promising times.

If clarity was ever the problem that kept Merrily from rolling along—and director Hal Prince certainly thought it was when he put the 1981 Broadway cast in sweatshirts with identifiers (talk-show host, best pal) emblazoned on their chests—that problem has by this point been effectively laid to rest. It can’t have been easy to write exposition in reverse, but after years of revisions, Furth and Sondheim have pretty well crystallized relationships, moods, and motivations.

And Schaeffer, whose forte is finding the beating heart in musicals others have given up for dead, takes no chances on nuances getting lost amid the broader strokes. On the off chance that someone made it into the theater unaware of the show’s conceit, the backward sweep through time is telegraphed during the turn-off-your-cellphones announcement. Characters are firmly pegged not just to types but to actual celebrities. Gussie, who’s usually played as a generic brassy diva, is pretty specifically Liza Minnelli in Ross’ wide-eyed portrayal. Olivera spouts Mary’s quips in ways that will make them identifiable as Dorothy Parkerisms even to folks who don’t know Merrily was adapted from a play by Parker’s Algonquin Round Tablenmates George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

All of which is smart, though not quite as smart as casting Gartshore. The performer, downright charismatic as Franklin, is so achingly vulnerable that this usually problematic protagonist is hard to hate even as he’s making the thoughtless, hurtful choices that land him where he was when we met him. Gartshore enters sad, stooped, and lonely, picking out a theme on the piano with such regret that you intuit how much he misses music long before the script explains that he’s abandoned it. Then, as the evening moves back in time, his posture straightens, his eyes rekindle, and his voice lightens until it’s as high and sweet as a choirboy’s.

That’s also true of Liberman’s voice, which is a harsh bark during “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” the tongue-twisting accusatory rant Charley delivers on live TV in his first scene. By Act 2, the bark has become a purr, but the man from whom it emanates has become a bit indistinct. I’m guessing this is because in most productions, Charley, wounded by his buddy’s neglect, has what amounts to a nervous breakdown in that TV studio and consequently seems blameless at the evening’s outset, but that here his rant seems a deliberate response to Franklin’s latest betrayal. Because it registers as calculated, Charley, who is usually the easiest of the characters to identify with, becomes as troubling as any of the others.

And they are tough to warm up to. Olivera’s Mary, tart of tongue and self-destructive, and Christopher Bloch’s sad-sack producer are perhaps the warmest of them, with the structure more or less guaranteeing that audiences will recoil from the others—vindictive wives, sniping hangers-on—on first encounter.

Even the plaintive “Not a Day Goes By” is spat out by Beth outside a divorce court before it’s sung with a wrenching bittersweetness at her wedding. The wistful “Good Thing Going” registers first as a crass full-frontal assault of a showstopper, before we hear it crooned softly at an audition. Robert Perdziola’s costumes—outsize plaids and ferocious houndstooths in Act 1—get similarly toned down, even as the chilly blues and hot pinks in Chris Lee’s lighting scheme are softening to a nostalgic glow. You get used to the notion that things that make you cringe will inevitably turn out to have cuddly antecedents, and eventually, that very fact makes you cringe.

All of which is by design, but somehow this conceit is not quite as enlightening in performance as it sounds in synopsis, even with everyone at Signature doing fiercely intelligent work, and even though that gorgeous score—put across by unamplified and pristine voices—sounds as lovely as it’s ever likely to. I left the theater wondering afresh how a show can be so smart, so challenging, so easy to admire, and so hard to love. I also left freshly haunted by music I thought I knew cold; humming, of course…and I wasn’t alone.