In keeping with the reverse-chronology concept of Merrily We Roll Along, let’s start with the ending. It was gorgeous in Maria Friedman’s production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (Sept. 8-Oct. 15, 2017). A sky just this side of black was studded with stars, but even brighter were the ones in the eyes of three aspiring artists waiting to see Sputnik usher in a new world. Young Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) sang part of “Our Time” in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, a hush born of awe. Who could help misting up at his innocence — or at the reappearance of Frank nearly 30 years later, alone, disillusioned and struggling to make sense of his successful but artistically wasted life?
That Frank had already appeared at the beginning of the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 show, described in a Huntington publication as “notoriously difficult to direct.” Friedman’s Merrily, first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factor in London in 2012 (and later digitally around the world in its West End transfer), was her debut as a director 20 years after she played Mary in the original British production at Haymarket Theatre. Borrowing the idea of a framing device (but not the same one) from the original Broadway production, she pulled together the nine scenes moving backwards in time into a streamlined, coherent narrative.
In the musical, the lives of Frank, Charley and Mary — first seen in sour middle age — get better as they grow younger. (If only they had known.) And so did this production. The fast-moving first act seemed dutiful but emotionally flat. Then early in the second act something sparked, and by “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” the show had caught fire, burning progressively brighter until the final blackout.
The Huntington production reunited Umbers and Damian Humbley as Charley from the London cast, with Eden Espinosa in place of Jenna Russell as Mary. Umbers played Frank as smooth rather than slick; as “Good Thing Going” makes clear, his tragic character flaw is that he never knows when to stop. Humbley’s Charley was well thought-out but too even-tempered. Singing “Franklin Shepard Inc.” without breaking a sweat, he also never showed the character’s growth over time. Espinosa looked appropriately dumpy but infused her character with verve.
Among the supporting cast, Aimee Doherty’s Gussie was sinuous rather than voluptuous as played by Emily Skinner at the Kennedy Center “Sondheim Celebration” in 2002. Belting the opening-night version of “Good Thing Going,” she strutted like, well, Gypsy Rose Lee (who could have been seen in a Sondheim double-header, since Gypsy was playing almost concurrently at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston). As Beth, Jennifer Ellis almost spat out the lyrics in her Act I “Not a Day Goes By,” bringing to mind Judi Dench’s angry “Send in the Clowns” in 1996 at the National Theater in London. The more hopeful reprise in Act II became Frank and Beth’s wedding vows, with a yearning Mary, ever the third wheel, singing along.
In songs now so familiar and beloved, Sondheim’s shape-shifting motifs came through even more clearly than usual under Matthew Stern’s musical direction: “Good Thing Going” in “There’s not a tune you can hum,” of course, but also “Growing Up” in “The Blob.” (And not just within Merrily: Was it my just imagination, or did I really hear “It was due to arrive/At a quarter to 5,” from Sweeney Todd, in “It’s a Hit”?) It was especially fun to hear “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” in Boston, where the actors had to get the Kennedy accents just right. They did, and the audience approved.
An upstage wall of windows was the focal point of Soutra Gilmour’s sleek rectilinear unit set. Changes of props and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting signaled changes of scene, from a New York penthouse overlooking the city skyline to a California beach house glowing softly with light bouncing off water, and various points in between. Most intriguing was what started out as a barely visible circle penciled on a white wall. Filled in with a drawing reminiscent of Sol LeWitt, a court seal and a television studio’s clocks showing the time in world capitals, it served as visual punctuation. (The NBC peacock was another nice touch.) Scene changes were so smooth as to escape notice. The second time a piano appeared, I had to pay close attention to see if it was rolled off or descended down a trap door.
Gilmour also displayed subtle genius in her period costumes, particularly fashion clichés of the 1960s through ’80s, like Mary’s zip-front Icelandic wool jacket, or the knee-high leather boots she never seemed to take off until she wore sandals with a frumpy gold evening dress to the Broadway opening when everyone else was in New York black. Charley’s pristine white sneakers on opening night (at the Alvin Theater, where the original Merrily flopped) marked him as equally clueless.
The beginning of Merrily is not necessarily its ending, and Frank’s introspection at the end of this production suggests the question might be open. Has he learned from his mistakes? Is it just possible that one and one and one can become three again? The stage goes dark, the show ends, and we’ll never know. But the possibility is tantalizing.
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.