By Harry Forbes
The latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway failure proves, yet again, that the work, adapted by George Furth from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is -- divorced from Hal Prince’s original misguided staging with its hugely talented but as-yet-unseasoned cast of young people wearing sweatshirts -- an eminently viable one, with a pearly and highly accessible score.
New York Theatre Workshop’s production is essentially a reworking of the one director Maria Friedman mounted in London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (later moved to the West End and streamed) in 2012. Here, it’s ideally cast with Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez as the three bosom buddies -- composer Franklin Shepard, playwright/lyricist Charley Kringas, and novelist/theater critic Mary Flynn respectively -- whose deep friendship ends in tatters because of composer Frank’s selling out for success, and his weakness for the femme fatale wife Gussie (Kyrstal Joy Brown) of his producer Joe Josephson (superb Reg Rogers).
Of course, as the script moves backward in time -- with its score cleverly constructed in like manner so that reprises of songs come before we hear the full number -- the acrimonious and downright ugly outbursts of the opening scene give way to the joyous optimism of youth. And the show does perforce end happily, even as we’re poignantly aware of what’s fated for the future.
Groff sings beautifully, but every bit as impressive as his vocalizing is his mature dramatic performance, displaying impressive gravitas throughout and youthening convincingly from the shallow Hollywood power player to the idealistic dreamer of the earlier scenes.
The same is true for Mendez whose vitriolic drunken outburst in the early party scene gives way to the empathetic, hugely likable friend who inwardly pines for Frank. But Frank, in turn, will fall in love with Beth (Katie Rose Clarke), and then abandon her for Gussie.
Radcliffe goes from strength to strength with each new stage appearance. After his starring role in “How To Succeed in Business” revival in 2011, it’s no surprise he can sing but here, he convincingly captures the likability and snowballing frustration as he helplessly watches Frank repeatedly make the wrong choices. He forcefully nails the anger of his raging “Franklin D. Shepard” number.
Now truthfully, every one of the revivals I’ve encountered since the premiere -- York in 1994, Encores in 2012, and Fiasco in 2019, and even an early barebones basement production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- has demonstrated the show’s dramatic and musical strengths. But good as they all were, this one may be the best of all, anchored as it is by such a well played depiction of Frank, Charley, and Mary’s friendship. It makes their eventual dissolution all the more of a gut punch.
Friedman, who played Mary in the 1992 Hampstead Theatre production in Leicester, clearly knows the material inside and out, and directs with a sure hand.
Soutra Gilmour’s set design is mostly functional for the myriad scene changes) but, augmented by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting, it works effectively. Gilmour’s costumes are period perfect as the action backtracks from 1980 to 1958.
Music Director Alvin Hough, Jr. leads a nine-piece band in a satisfying reduction of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, boosted by Kai Harada’s sound design. (Catherine Jayes is music supervisor.) The big numbers like “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Our Time,” and “Old Friends” all receive splendid treatment, and the lesser known ones such as “Growing Up,” “It’s a Hit!” and “The Blob” play more effectively than ever.
The coming Broadway transfer of this sterling revival will perhaps put to rest once and for all any notion of the show being in any way Sondheim’s problem child.
(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street; nytw.org; through January 22)
Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel RadcliffePrint this post