New Broadway musical; That Sondheim touch - again

Merrily We Roll Along. Musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), George Furth (book), from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography by Larry Fuller.

Several lovely Stephen Sondheim songs provide the melodic attractions of ''Merrily We Roll Along.'' Based on one of the less successful Kaufman-Hart collaborations, the new musical comedy at the Alvin Theater concerns the sweet and sour smell of success, the pitfalls of compromise, and the strains that divergent ideals can place on friendship. For its valedictory, librettist George Furth has followed the original work by borrowing from Polonius's ''This above all: to thine own self be true . . . '' speech. Yet the prevailing tone of the new ''Merrily We Roll Along'' more nearly recalls the ruefulness of ''Follies'' or ''Company,'' for both of which Mr. Sondheim was composer-lyricist.

The story concerns the joint and ultimately separate careers of two 1955 high-school graduates: Franklin Shepard (Jim Walton), class valedictorian, and Charley Kringas (Lonny Price). The 1980 graduation at which Frank is principal speaker coincides with the latest in the personal and professional crises that have marked the course of his upward mobility from gifted young composer to corporate biggie.

Retrogressing across the years, ''Merrily We Roll Along'' - as title and song - reflects on what happened to Frank and his two closest friends, writers Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn (Ann Morrison). Idealist Charley wants to collaborate on the kind of show he and Frank once dreamed of before Frank became seduced by commercial success. Charley succeeds independently without sacrificing his ideals. Among Frank's victims are Mary, whose disillusionment leads to alcoholism, and Beth (Sally Klein), Frank's first wife.

A rather dense and plodding first act unreels backward in some confusion regarding both destination and identities (the latter problem not altogether solved by having costume designer Judith Dolan furnish all the characters with identifying T-shirts). But Mr. Sondheim's score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) gives a welcome lift to the proceedings and also helps clarify things.

There are the usual intricate Sondheim counterthemes and counterrhythms, with lyrics to match. And there are some excellent show tunes. They include the first-act ''Like It Was,'' sung by the pert and gifted Miss Morrison, ''Old Friends,'' sung by same. Act II offers such treats as ''Good Thing Going,'' ''Not a Day Goes By,'' ''Our Time,'' and ''The Hill of Tomorrow'' finale. At the preview I attended, the audience particularly enjoyed ''Bobby and Jackie and Jack,'' a 1960s topical song about the Kennedys, sung in a Greenwich Village nightclub.

''Merrily We Roll Along'' was twice postponed to allow director-coproducer Harold Prince and company to whip it into shape for Broadway consumption. If they haven't quite brought it off, that is not for want of dedicated efforts by talented people. Mr. Prince's showmanly staging, Larry Fuller's choreography, and Paul Gemignani's musical direction exploit the energy and freshness of a youthful cast that includes many Broadway newcomers. The elaborate aluminum scaffolds and platforms were designed by Eugene Lee with lighting by David Hersey. Mass Appeal. Starring Milo O'Shea. Comedy by Bill C. Davis. Directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Youthful idealism challenges entrenched complacency in the new two-character comedy at the Booth Theater. Although the locale of Bill C. Davis's ''Mass Appeal'' is a Roman Catholic Church in a typically prosperous American community , Mr. Davis is concerned with more than narrowly parochial or exclusively ecclesiastic matters. The playwright is speaking rather to the subtle ways in which self-indulgence and the desire for popularity can divert an initially dedicated minister from his true mission.

The encounter from which all other issues flow begins when the Rev. Tim Farley (Milo O'Shea) conducts a ''dialogue sermon.'' Mark Dolson (Michael O'Keefe), a blunt young seminarian, upsets the ''dialogue'' with tough questions and with views that take exception to denominational dogma. The upshot is that Father Farley assumes the role of guide and mentor to the censorious Mark, who is already in trouble with the seminary authorities.

Mark scorns everything about the veteran cleric's ministerial conduct - from his tippling habits and the Mercedes he drives to the conventional homilies with which he massages the souls of his flock. To Mark, the priest has confused the good life with godly life. He tells people what they want to hear instead of what Mark thinks they ought to hear. In Father Farley's view, the zealous seminarian merely seeks to disturb the status quo, stir up controversy, and alienate the very communicants without whose support the church establishment could not exist.

As is often the case in such encounters, the patiently humorous cleric and the stormy neophyte begin to appreciate each other's virtues - particularly in the wake of Mark's poorly received practice sermon. The priest recalls his own younger days as a street preacher. In the end, Father Farley risks his sinecure to champion Mark when it appears that the lifestyle (including homosexuality) that he had abandoned before entering the seminary may prevent his progress toward the priesthood.

''Mass Appeal'' concludes by turning both Father Farley and Mark in new directions. The ending is somewhat pat but, in reaching it, Mr. Davis proves himself a winning, articulate, and good-humored observer with a gift for comic dialogue and character observation. Mr. O'Shea is ideally cast as Father Farley - outgoing, slyly political, yet with an honest and sometimes troubled heart. He is more than just a jolly man of the cloth. Mr. O'Keefe is earnest and attractive but he does little to convey the complexities of Mark's character. Director Geraldine Fitzgerald guides the performance with a sure hand. The simple but attractive production was designed by David Gropman, costumed by William Ivey Long, and lighted by E. Mitchell Dana.

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