Score: Stephen Sondheim; Book: George Furth
At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. . Tickets: 773-777-9884 or PorchlightMusicTheatre.org; $33-$60. Runs through: March 11
Merrily We Roll Along is a nearly forgotten musical where the songs are better known than the 1981 Broadway flop that spawned them. Think back to all the times you've heard lounge singers warble "Not a Day Goes By" or "Good Thing Going," or a gay chorus trying not to mess up "Old Friends" or "Our Time."
So thank your lucky stars that Porchlight Music Theatre has given Merrily We Roll Along another spin in a spectacular and genuinely moving revival. Not only can you treasure hearing Stephen Sondheim's brassy score in context with George Furth's revised 1994 book, you can judge for yourself whether this sweet-and-sour look at creative New Yorkers' friendships falling apart is worthy of a redemption.
Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber finds a perfect framing device to tame the show's potentially confusing backwards trajectory ( also a feature of Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play that inspired the musical ). After catching a cable broadcast of his 1976 film Darkness Before Dawn, the leading man of composer and film director Franklin Shephard ( a handsome and talented Jim DeSelm ) flashes back to the turning points of his ruined relationships.
Weber's vision to firmly root the show to specific times and places is also greatly enhanced by the flood of doctored historical digital projections by designer Anthony Churchill, plus the parade of fun/glamorous period costumes by designer Bill Morey. Audiences claiming to be confused, as seen in the 2016 documentary film The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened focusing on the original production, really can't complain here.
Weber and his amazingly talented cast clearly love this rich and challenging material. They all nearly fill in the missing blanks of Furth's very caustic script involving Frank's friends like the unbearably high-minded playwright Charley Kringas ( a rightfully idiosyncratic Matt Crowle ) and the alcoholic author-turned-critic Mary Flynn ( a heartbreaking Neala Barron ).
Other characters are also welcomingly complex. This is especially true of the ambitious Broadway star Gussie Carnegie ( a seductive and resentful Keely Vasquez ), and with Frank's betrayed first wife, Beth ( a lovely Aja Wiltshire ).
Yet the early anger injected into Merrily We Roll Along can be tough to initially warm up to. Yet the musical's backwards journey to more optimistic times make all the brighter and happier scenes much more weighted with rue and regret.
Merrily We Roll Along can emotionally sucker-punch audiences, especially those who are willing to look back at the missteps of their youth. Be thankful that Porchlight is giving Merrily We Roll Along another well-deserved chance to share its many musical glories.