It would be gratifying to report that in reviving the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," which was one of the early casualties of this year's Broadway season, Catholic University has turned things around and come up with a big, fat hit. Gratifying, perhaps, but inaccurate.
Despite some revisions in the book (largely undetectable to my eye), "Merrily" remains a musical with some commendable virtues, Sondheim's score being chief among them, but also with a serious flaw running right down its middle. Moving backward in time, it illustrates the 27-year sellout of a songwriter by the name of Franklin Shepard. At the start, he's a Hollywood mogul--middle-aged, wealthy and craven. Then, scene by scene, the show peels back the years, showing us the betrayals and the missteps, until we end up with a starry-eyed Franklin, graduating from Lake Forest Academy and intoning his faith in the wonderful world to come.
In "Merrily," nothing stinks quite like success, and ideals are ballast to be jettisoned in the ruthless ascent. True as that may be, the notion is hard to digest when the fable is being illustrated by performers at the beginning of their careers. By intentionally casting the Broadway production young, director Harold Prince underlined the irony of an otherwise familiar plot. But he also ran into two problems, and they continue to go unsolved in Catholic University's jittery staging.
For much of the show, callow performers are required to portray a whole shooting gallery of show-business sycophants and opportunists, well down the shabby road of compromise. Not until the final half hour do the performers' ages and the ages of the characters they are playing begin to match up. By then, it's too late. Secondly, "Merrily" has an unsettling tendency to exploit the freshness and vigor of youth, at the same time it is relegating such freshness to the dust bin. There's an undercoating of mean-spiritedness to the proceedings, as if the authors were somehow exacting revenge for their own lost hopes.
Still, with its echoes of "Company" and "Follies," Sondheim's score has lovely variety and energy, and he continues to do more with a lyric than anyone since Cole Porter. Unfortunately, the musicians at Catholic University muddle through Jonathan Tunick's snappy orchestrations, and the pace is half what it was on Broadway. But even under the sluggish circumstances, the catchy "Old Friends," the plaintive "Not a Day Goes By" and the uplifting "Our Time" assert their superiority as musical comedy numbers.
The affable stage presence of Bill Graham Jr. doesn't entirely redeem Franklin Shepard, but it does make him less obvious a heel. Carole Graham, as a sharp-witted alcoholic novelist who loves him from the sidelines, grows more appealing as her character grows younger. However, as Shepard's partner in songwriting and the one pillar of decency in this show business temple, Mitch Landrieu squanders his role in a kind of frenzied eagerness to please.
An uneven cast is not the major problem, though. Catholic University has hit upon a fruitful notion--taking a Broadway leftover and giving it a reworking. But director James Petosa really hasn't reworked much of anything. His staging is pedestrian, when it is not simply labored. With somewhat less flash than the original, this production (through May 2 in the Hartke Theatre) merely tumbles into the same old traps.