Matthew Gurewitsch
Matthew Gurewitsch
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Pundicity: Informed Opinion and Review

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There was never much to the story, and there isn't now. Barely out of school, a playwright, a composer, and a novelist with stars in their eyes go forth to set the world on fire, and for a second, they do. But the playwright clings to his dream of writing stuff that is meaningful, the composer is a sellout, and the novelist is a flash in the pan. In a twist, as in the original play, their unedifying history is told in reverse chronological order, from nuclear winter to hopeful spring.

Radcliffe, an elfin stick of dynamite in signature Harry Potter specs, plays the playwright Charley Kringas, the idealist. The matinee idol Groff appears as the composer Franklin Shephard, opportunist and serial adulterer. Mendez is Mary Flynn, a third wheel who gives up creative writing for criticism and drowns her disappointments in alcohol.

Mary keeps linking pinkies with the guys to salvage the old bond of friendship, but eventually Charley melts down on national TV, and that's the end of that. Radcliffe's blistering account of Charley's furious number "Franklin Shephard, Inc." pretty much eclipses the rest of the show. Nothing in Franklin's role or Mary's comes close.

Krystal Joy Brown, on the other hand, has quite a time of it as the Broadway queen bee Gussie Carnegie (née Shirley Akinola, I kid you not). After biding her time in Act 1, firing off bitchy asides, there she is at the top of Act 2, dripping sequins against a curtain of red velvet, taking charge with "Gussie's Opening Number," which isn't so much a song as a teaser for a song, but what a teaser:

He's only a boy...

Why do I think he loves me?

Maybe he loves what I can do for him.

Maybe he thinks I'll come through for him.

Maybe the moon is cheese!

Blink, and you'll miss it. (Don't blink, and you'll never forget it.) But before she calls it a night, Gussie's back, in full Queen B mode, stinging the hands that feed her (and also fed her creator). Set-up: She's introducing Franklin, on whom she has designs both personal and professional, to the glitterati whose chatter will make his career. Elsewhere, Mary calls this same crowd the "movers" and "shapers" (not "shakers," which inconveniently for her wouldn't rhyme with "papers" and "vapors").

"Meet the Blob," Gussie begins:

Meet the Blob,

The bodies you read about.

The ones who know everyone

That everybody knows

Meet the Blob,

Not many and yet—

You never see one.

They come as a set.

What with one thing and another, Gussie steals thunder from lots of people we should care about much more — in particular, Katie Rose Clarke as Beth Shephard, Frank's discarded first wife and mother of his son. We know who she is, but we've never seen her when she materializes outside of divorce court, launching straight into "Not A Day Goes By," singing her cheated heart out. Psychodrama to the max, out of thin air. Impact: zero.

Reg Rogers (Joe Josephson), Katie Rose Clarke (Beth Shepard), Jonathan Groff (Franklin Shepard), Daniel Radcliffe (Charley Kringas) and Lindsay Mendez (Mary Flynn) in 'Merrily We Roll Along' (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Bigger numbers? Following Gussie's moment in the spotlight, sheer joy strikes in the form of "It's A Hit!," sung by Charley, Frank, et al. as an offstage audience goes wild for their first Broadway show. Later, as a sample of Charley and Frank's juvenilia (reverse chronology, remember), there's the antic skit "Bobbie and Jackie and Jack," spoofing guess what political dynasty? Does anyone still wear a hat?

In the finale, Frank, Charley, and Mary, younger than we've ever seen them, gaze out from a New York rooftop, stars dancing around them. "It's our time, breathe it in," they sing to a tune of disarming simplicity, "Worlds to change and worlds to win...." Promises, promises...

The future lies before them like the poet's land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new — but also so unforgiving, if only the friends were listening to their lyrics. "It's our heads on the block," they continue, "Give us room and start the clock./Our dreams coming true,/Me and you, pal,/Me and you!" Cue the waterworks.


On to The Shed at Hudson Yards and Here We Are. Word got out eons ago that the book would be a mashup of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel, films by Luis Buñuel, the fiercely anticlerical Spanish surrealist and revolutionary. The Discreet Charm concerns a group of people who hit the road in search of a meal; The Exterminating Angel (1962, reverse chronology strikes again!) deals with people — different people (details, details) — who show up for a dinner party and can't leave the room.


A scene from the premiere production of 'Here We Are' at The Shed at Hudson Yards (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

No one denies that Sondheim had been working on the Buñuel project under various titles over a very long period of time. No one denies that the playwright David Ives and the director Joe Mantello had his full cooperation and attention in the project's final stages. But did Sondheim really give his OK for a production? The testimony from those in a position to know is far from conclusive. My guess is that he went back and forth.

As a tribute to a master who has left the house, Mantello's show at The Shed could hardly be bettered. The book holds together, in its absurdist fashion. The slick, stylish production in its box of mirrors ticks along like musical clockwork. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations surprise and delight the ear. The casting is pitch-perfect. If only the score weren't such a thing of shreds and patches.

Orienting ourselves would be easier with the customary cheat sheet of numbers in hand, but the program book doesn't list them. As it is, stitching the bits into a tapestry seems rather a lost cause.

To make matter worse, the score peters out to the point that Act 2 could almost pass for a spoken play. Might that not be because Sondheim's inkwell was running dry? No, no, no, some sharpies have reasoned. It's an artistic choice! With no place left to go, the characters can't sing! Tell that to Radamès and Aida.

Besides, the most glaring musical lacuna comes at the very top of the show, long before the walls start closing in. Guests pour onstage à la Company for a brunch their hosts were planning for the next day, jabbering a bouncy mile a minute, except that this time (bummer), it's all talk, talk, talk.

David Hyde Pierce as the Bishop in 'Here We Are' (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

As Part 1 ("The Road") gets going, our hungry band bops from eatery to snooty eatery, one more grotesque in its pretensions than the next, none serving food, drink, or so much as a glass of water. Obliquely, we learn of military operations against a multinational drug cartel. An adulterous couple carry on under a cuckold's nose. Air strikes resound. Top secrets fly back and forth between agents with the code names Apocalypse and Inferno. Beneath the fun and games, it's a world we know too well. Escapism this is not.

One track I'll be looking for when/if they issue an original-cast album is a Buddha-meets-Shakespearean number for the Soldier, played by the mesmerizing Jin Ha. We're already well into Act 1 when he erupts onstage like Rambo. But he's far from the action hero we mistake him for at first. In the dream that is the subject of his song, all the world's a stage destined to vanish when he awakens. The love-at-first-sight duet Ha shares with Micaela Diamond as the gender-fluid champagne ecoguerilla Fritz is another keeper. At a first hearing, it came off like vintage Sondheim, up there with the best of Passion.

David Hyde Pierce, who doesn't appear until intermission is nearly upon us, plays a Bishop who has a bone to pick with God and does so, assiduously, to music. Spoiler alert: His Excellency needs a job. I won't be surprised to hear that one again in a cabaret program. Rachel Bay Jones plays Marianne Brink, a tycoon's trophy wife, who has a dream sequence dancing with an eight-foot bear. In the wasteland of Part 2, their barcarole shimmers like an oasis. The bear, you should know, is straight out of The Exterminating Angel, but if you're hoping to sight Buñuel's trinity of sheep roaming through the mansion, you're out of luck. Was that (blasphemous?) touch of Apocalypse (?) just one too many?

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