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Review | ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ gets the stunning Broadway revival it deserves

NEW YORK — Like precision code breakers, the team responsible for the revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” have cracked it. The musical’s code, that is. While not exactly an enigma, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s show — with a story told in reverse chronology — has always been something of an underperforming head-scratcher: the 1981 Broadway original opened and closed in the blink of an eye.

Well, scratch no more. Director Maria Friedman, in league with stars Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe, burrow down to the musical’s theatrical core and discover not a shallow pool of glibness but a deep wellspring of emotionality. Friedman’s poignant Broadway revival, officially opening Tuesday night at the Hudson Theatre, is a marvelous marriage of Sondheim’s stupendously satisfying music and lyrics with Friedman’s seminal insights. She preserves the biting humor, too, of this adaptation of a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

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If only Sondheim and Furth (not to mention Kaufman and Hart) could have lived to have seen how their collective handiwork has been so expertly and tenderly refined. Although the musical “Merrily” was born as a cynical takedown of the entertainment industry, what Friedman and company have erected, more importantly, is a story of the painful architecture of long-term friendship. The blessed contributions of Groff, Mendez and Radcliffe — in addition to Krystal Joy Brown, Katie Rose Clarke and Reg Rogers in crucial supporting roles — coalesce in a way that feels almost spiritual.

The fractious breakup of Franklin Shepard (Groff), Charley Kringas (Radcliffe) and Mary Flynn (Mendez) unfolds backward: the show starts in the 1970s with tumultuous blowups in middle age, and ends in the 1950s, when they meet each other as youthful, would-be artists. Friedman gets that “Merrily” is a love story and an exploration of the transactional dimension in even the closest of friendships. As Charley sadly observes about the three of them as their aspirations and feelings veer off in different directions: “Now, we’re one and one and one.”

Sondheim’s compositions provide the commanding ligature for Furth’s nimble characters: this is one of those Sondheim listening occasions when you think, “No, this one is his strongest score.” It is a thought that actually occurs on many evenings in a Sondheimiac’s life. But when you’re hearing his music so beautifully realized — Radcliffe keeps up impressively with musical-theater prodigies Mendez and Groff — you grasp even more deeply the melodic and lyrical sophistication at work.

It helps too, that the orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick sound so robust under the baton of Joel Fram. Cleverly, scenery and costume designer Soutra Gilmour — creating a more solid-looking version of last year’s off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop — places the 13-member band in the penthouse of an all-purpose-domicile set. Gilmour has dazzlingly upgraded the period costumes, too, especially but not only for Brown, who plays Gussie Carnegie, the voracious actress who pries Frank out of the arms of his hapless wife, Clarke’s Beth.

“Not a Day Goes By,” the gorgeous torch song Beth sings in two emotional keys, once when she and Frank divorce, and later (because it’s told in reverse) when they marry, are moving high points in an evening filled with them. “Old Friends,” “Good Thing Going,” “Our Time” and “Growing Up” are calculated to have our hearts leaping into our throats at regular intervals. All three stars get their big solos, but no one raises the audience’s blood pressure more satisfyingly than Radcliffe, who as pure artist Charley is the lucky deliverer of the high-minded tantrum song, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”

As lovelorn Mary, Mendez pulls the show’s most active sympathy lever; her readings of Furth’s sarcastic, booze-fueled put-downs grant her entry to the exclusive club inhabited by “Company’s” gimlet-eyed Joanne. Wondrously, as the evening progresses, her Mary, a journalist, trades her acidic commentary for a softer adoration of Frank and Charley, a Broadway songwriting team. Groff’s transformation-in-reverse is a perceptive journey as well, from remorseful Hollywood sellout to star-struck starving artist, pressing his nose up against the window of fame and riches.

In a way, “Merrily,” which debuted when Sondheim was in his early 40s — the age of his main characters at the beginning of the musical — could be a dramatization of a professional tension Sondheim himself felt. Frank, with music, and Charley, with words, represent the two sides of Sondheim’s own art and perhaps, embodiments of his efforts to reconcile material success and highbrow achievement. Ultimately, “Merrily” asks, can artists expect to have both?

Ideally, this Broadway incarnation will be both a hit and a reflection of the higher aspirations of musical theater. It’s even tighter, funnier and more touching than what Friedman staged off-Broadway.

So much ingenuity. So much joyful creativity. So much for audiences to savor.

Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth. Directed by Maria Friedman. Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Kai Harada; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; choreography, Tim Jackson; music direction, Alvin Hough Jr. With Maya Boyd, Sherz Aletaha, Corey Mach, Talia Simone Robinson, Leana Rae Concepcion, Brian Sears, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Christian Strange, Max Rackenberg, Brady Wagner. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York.

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