02/18/2012 04:43 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2012

First Nighter: Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along Does and Doesn't

Ever since the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth-Harold Prince Merrily We Roll Along opened in 1981, rolling along merrily is one thing it hasn't done. A hodge-podge of notions about lost dreams, eroding romance and the ever-present perils of show business very freely adapted from the unsuccessful 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy and using only the title and the time-in-reverse conceit, it had one unassailable asset -- Sondheim's score, which was, and remains, right up there with his other often imitated but inimitable scores.

Along with "Old Friends," the melting "Our Time" and two of the much celebrated tunesmith's most trenchant torch songs, "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going," are several more craftily integrated numbers. Not a one goes by without attesting to Sondheim's effortless (though we know it's supremely effortful) ability to rhyme with the flow of everyday conversation and his equally effortless (ditto the effortful part) cornucopia of melodies -- the melodies, of course, rarely receiving the deserved praise his lyrics inevitably get.

Revived now in the City Center Encores! series and conducted energetically by Rob Berman, the enterprise is probably the slickest it's ever been. This is a testament to James Lapine, who -- according to Sondheim in his magisterial Finishing the Hat -- took the flaccid piece apart and put it back together much improved in 1985. Returning as the director (remember Lapine replaced Harold Prince as Sondheim's chief collaborator after Merrily) failed, he's staged an effective 2012 version of his 27-year-old version -- one that's as well acted and sung as the most demanding fan could want and is further enhanced by Dan Knechtges's occasional choreography and Wendall K. Harrington's chuckles-eliciting News of the World-like projections.

But -- yes, here comes the "but" -- the musical's problems persist and have nothing to do with the usual blame placed on Prince's presentation: a cast too young to be convincing when playing characters in their forties. Sorry, but while it's definitely wiser to hire mostly actors midway between the twenties-to-forties range (okay, forties-to-twenties range), the relatively minor adjustment only makes a minor concession to the property's nagging lapse.

The major obstacle is the inept libretto in which three old friends -- Franklin Shepard (solid Colin Donnell), Charley Kringas (feisty Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Mary Flynn (hilarious Celia Keenan-Bolger) -- have totally trashed the often proclaimed dreams of theirs and then regress in time so patrons see their reverse-sequential missteps between 1955, when they were young and achingly hopeful, and the sorrow of 1980 Broadway and Hollywood ballyhoo and disillusion.

Unfortunately, the stops along the way are dreadfully familiar. (Harold Pinter has far better results with Betrayal.) Succumbing to a life of luxe and Tinseltown notoriety, Franklin lets his marriage to first love Beth Spencer (Betsy Wolfe) disintegrate when conniving Main Stem diva Gussie Carnegie (ebullient Elizabeth Stanley), unhappily wed to producer Joe Josephson (adept Adam Grupper), gets her hook into the weak-willed lad but eventually loses him to a starlet. After publishing a best-seller (about what is never vouchsafed) and forever pining for Franklin, Mary becomes a lush, spouting caustic Dorothy Parker-like bon mots -- a gift for inspired sarcasm she loses as she youthens. The least well-drawn of the already sketchily penned trio, Charley primarily gets angrier as he loses his composer to heady Los Angeles contracts.

(Incidentally, one development Charley seems to let slide is the botching of his lyrics in the second act opening, which offers part of a star-with-chorus-boys number from the fellows' Great White Way debut, "Musical Husbands." Staged to seem as if it's a typically overblown extravaganza, it's supposedly from a commendable hit. In other words, the implied satire is muddied.)

So every one of the Merrily We Roll Along plot complications has been seen before. Certainly, the depiction of miserable marriages involving people connected with Broadway had already been covered in the Sondheim-Prince-James Goldman predecessor, Follies, whereas the Sondheim-Furth Company folks may not be show-biz denizens but their marriages aren't entirely satisfying. This musical's cynicism, however, is not only numbingly familiar from Prince and Sondheim. Many have erred. Also hardly new are the view of life as corrupting and full of cheerless cocktail party gab or the hammering on the ineffable dreams of the young deflating like balloons wrinkling in the gutter several days after the parade has passed.

Which leads to the musical's core misapprehension and the source of the deeply shallow depths Sondheim rarely, if ever, allows in his songs but seems to tolerate from his bookwriters. Merrily We Roll Along assumes that the dreams of the young are sacrosanct and that the tragedy of life is the evisceration of those dreams. Perhaps it's true of some young men and women. It's not true of Franklin, Charley and Mary, who dream of fame, fortune and changing the world without quite understanding -- as most youngsters wouldn't be expected to understand -- the experience and wisdom necessary to achieve their vague goals substantively, meaningfully.

Apparently -- here's where the Merrily We Roll Along team members took the wrong fork in the road when they set out -- it never occurred to any of them that a more potent and much smarter musical would be one in which the amorphous nature of adolescent and early adulthood dreams is examined and the realization is reached that to live the good life genuine maturity brings, more is required than evanescent fancies.

By the way, in the astounding Finishing the Hat, one of Sondheim's trip-ups is his explanation for why critics -- who can't be said to have repudiated him or outright ignored him over the course of his career -- dismissed Merrily We Roll Along. He writes, "Part of the reason for the virulent overreaction, I suspect, was that at this time Hal and I were resented, having become successful despite our maverick ventures."

It's always easier to blame the press than to look un-sentimentally at ourselves. The truth of Merrily We Roll Along is that it isn't maverick enough -- always excepting Sondheim's elegant score. It docilely buys a belief in the dreams of the innocent when scrutinizing them with a true maverick's determination might have led to more fertile musical comedy fields, to the more probing verities that Prince and Sondheim have always claimed to expound.