WASHINGTON — `MERRILY We Roll Along,'' unfortunately, doesn't. The Stephen Sondheim musical, based on a George Kaufman and Moss Hart play, originally opened and almost simultaneously closed (16 performances) on Broadway in 1981. It has been revamped by Mr. Sondheim and George Furth, who wrote its book, into a new production at the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through April 8.
But what appears to be the musical's tragic flaw has been left intact: starting the play at the story's end and working smartly backward to its beginning. The exercise reminds a playgoer of the famous parody of Time magazine's early style: ``Backward go the sentences until reels the mind.''
As the play begins, we meet the estranged trio who had once been theatrical Three Musketeers: redhead writer Mary Flynn (played by Becky Ann Baker), composer Franklin Shepherd (Victor Garber), and playwright Charles Kringus (David Garrison). There is a prologue set in New York in 1957. But the play's actual first scene is set in 1980, and the musical unspools backwards through the '70s, '60s and late '50s, to end with that age-of-innocence first meeting of the friends. This way, it technically has a happy ending. But the later bitterness of the trio upstages the sweet, flowing score by Sondheim.
When we meet her, Mary, after years of unrequited love for Frank, has become an alcoholic who writes acid theater criticism. Frank has gone from successful Broadway playwright over the backs of his friends to mega-success in Hollywood. He and current wife, Gussie, a gilded actress, are snarling at one another beside their swimming pool. Later, when ex-friend Charlie appears and apologizes for their long-ago split, Frank punches him out.
This is an often dour, caustic show, particularly in the opening scenes. And while Sondheim and Furst suggest that the corruptions and disappointments of show-biz success are to blame, the audience has the uneasy feeling that the fault, dear Brutus, lies in the people, not their stardom.
The cast tries hard, but in this version of ``Merrily We Roll Along'' there are more potholes than a Manhattan street after a spring thaw.
David Garrison brings wit, charm, deft timing, and a delightful voice to his role as Charlie. His devastating rendition of the song ``Franklin Shepherd Inc.'' skewers Frank for his show-biz sellout. It's sung, or rather telecast, in a live TV-studio interview given jointly by Frank and Charlie to a smilingly panicked newswoman played by the quite funny Ruth Williamson.
Mary Gordon Murray is also fine as the brassy, egocentric actress Gussie Carnegie, who vamps her way into becoming Frank's second wife. But Victor Garber's Frank is too lightweight to be credible in the role - neither charming enough to be a convincing cad nor winning enough to be a nice guy who stubbed his toe on success. Becky Ann Baker has a gift for satire but is not convincing as Mary Flynn, hopelessly in love with Frank for 23 years and drowning her tears in booze.
There is not much gaiety in ``Merrily We Roll Along,'' but lots of anger, hurt, and vitriol. For a musical that sings the joys of friendship, it's surprisingly full of vituperation. By the final act, it seems you'd be better off just listening to a cast recording of Sondheim's pleasing score, with its memorable numbers like ``Old Friends,'' ``Not a Day Goes By'' and the title song, instead of taking in the whole show.
Director Douglas Wager's musical version of Robert Penn Warren's ``All the King's Men'' and his revival of ``On the Town'' have both been hits at Arena. But Mr. Wager's spirited touch as director seems to be hostage this time to a musical whose theme runs counter to his style.
``Merrily'' was originally based on George Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 epic play about a playwright's rise to success, as seen through the eyes of his friends - a writer (reportedly based on Dorothy Parker), an artist, and the playwright's wife, an actress. It had a cast of 91, nine sets, 150 costumes, and was a hit. After producer-director Hal Prince's 1981 version flopped, ``Merrily'' was revised and revived at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 and again in 1988 at Seattle's A Contemporary Theater.
There has been some talk of trying to bring the Arena revival to Broadway. But no matter how fond of the show Sondheim and Furst may be, it is perhaps time to say: Rest in peace. Or in the Southern idiom: This dog won't hunt.