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“Rolling Merry On” with Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway

NEW YORK — Broadway has never seen a better trio act than the triumphant triumvirate Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe at the heart of the spectacular new revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” directed by acclaimed British musical theater star Maria Friedman. What a joy it is to watch as life kicks its always hopeful characters in the teeth.

Life deals a serious beating to these old friends in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s brilliant, backward-moving musical about show business types, based on an old 1934 play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. It’s a device that sharpens the sting of what this cynical musical is trying to say.

How? Traditional chronology breeds complacency. Rolling backwards blows everything up.

Here’s a perfect example: In the bitter aftermath of a divorce case, we hear Sondheim’s masterpiece “Not a Day Goes By” sung. We then see that the origin of this song is a sweet love song that exemplifies the greatest of Sondheim’s greatest themes: We must love in order to exist.

For anyone who has loved and lost and wondered why, the song is truly devastating. In all the right ways. Chills will pass through your hallway.

The year 1957, when the final scene of the movie “Merrily” takes place, is all about possibilities. But we already know that friends disappoint their friends. Shared idealism collapsed in the abyss of commercial compromise. A marriage failed. Depression hid.

Yet they are all still there, as in all our beginnings, gleefully clinging to the shards of what we hoped would happen, even if we couldn’t make it happen. If you can’t find yourself in “Merrily,” which first premiered on Broadway in 1981, you don’t have a pulse.

And if watching this show makes you want to reach out to your estranged old friends and at least say, “hey old friend, are you okay old friend?” If it doesn’t make you say. Then you should hand over your seat to someone who listens more carefully.

But I bet most people are. As Sondheim once said in a song, “There are very few people like us!”

The late great man could have been talking about these performances. Friedman uncovered many previously problematic aspects of this show, but one of the real keys was understanding that Mary (Mendez), the sidekick to the aspiring writer-composer team of Franklin Shepard (Groff) and Charley Kringas (Radcliffe), was not the third. wheel but lead.

Mendez has every shade of Mary: charm, drinking, talent, self-destructive tendencies. But the biggest achievement here is that this fine actress conveys how differently people deal, or fail to cope, with disappointment. Some are rolling around merrily. Some, like Mary, fall off the carousel. Or skip it. A stunning performance.

But Groff, whose singing and energy drive the show, is also superb: his character refuses to see many things, but the denials are clearly visible on Groff’s face and voice. Radcliffe is similarly complex: his Charley is quiet, sweet, sad, modestly expectant, always fighting against cynicism, still trying to believe despite whatever evidence to the contrary life presents. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen this actor do.

But what makes this show stand out is the clearly warm relationship between the three stars, palpable from each other as they perform Tim Jackson’s very human choreography, a manifestation of present-day pleasure, amusement and fear. Friedman’s style and approach to the series seems to have allowed these three stars to reveal more of themselves than they had before.

Elsewhere in the piece, you inevitably get more typecast characters; for example producer Joe (Reg Rogers, who is down to the genre). I wish Friedman had elevated Charley’s partner Beth (Katie Rose Clark) so we could feel more of her inner world, but the structure of the piece makes that difficult. The two of them go there for a while. And Krystal Joy Brown is perfect as Gussie, one of the forces that drives the trio apart; “It’s as if she decided to do whatever was on the page to help us understand this woman,” she adds. to words And Notes.

“Joyfully” is even better than the one from New York Theater Workshop. Fundamental privacy has been protected and significantly deepened; This shows that it often depends on the relationships of the actors.

The physical production features a seemingly simple mid-century design by Soutra Gilmour; It’s an invaluablely clever piece of scenic and costume design (for me anyway), highlighting that, collectively, we can and do bring back styles and props, especially if We’re Rich, hearts are irredeemable.

Except for the spectacular revivals of great Broadway musicals, of course.

at the Hudson Theater 141 W. 44th St., New York; merrilyonbroadway.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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