By Cynthia Citron

Anyone who has ever experienced a Broadway musical performed in New York will recall the special excitement and energy that the audience brings to a really spectacular production. Sometimes we achieve that kind of enjoyment from a musical here in Los Angeles. Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” now being presented at the beautiful Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, is that kind of memorable event.

Originally a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, “Merrily We Roll Along” had a rather dismal start when it was first performed in 1934. For one thing, it had a cast of 55, which made it so expensive to produce that it closed after a short run.

In 1981, however, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth decided to resuscitate it as a musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Furth. But that new version had almost as sorry a start as the original play. The musical went through changes in concept, in actors, in choreographers, and several postponements, while the cast struggled through 52 previews and negative reviews from the Broadway critics. The musical closed after 16 performances.

Part of the problem was that the audience was confused by the fact that the play moved backwards in time, starting in 1976, when the stars’ long-standing friendships and loyalties had been forsaken in the frenzied quest for success. Then the story moves back twenty years to the time when the friends were all young and hopeful. In the current production, this passage of time backwards is recorded by a brightly lit sign indicating the year at the beginning of each new flashback.

Eventually, however, with Sondheim continually providing new songs and Furth busily revising the book, the show became an international success, especially in Britain where it won a number of prestigious awards.

Too, this current production in L.A. is enhanced by a cast of 20 wonderful actors whose singing provides an extraordinarily diverse collection of voices and styles, all magnificent. And they dance, too!

As the play begins we are introduced to Franklin Shepard (Aaron Lazar), a successful movie producer who started out as a composer whose only ambition was to write music for the theater. His current dark mood is reflected by the fact that he enters onto a pitch-black stage and into a raucous party that celebrates his latest hit movie. Among the guests are Charley Kringas (Wayne Brady), Frank’s lyric-writing partner for many years and now a respected novelist, and fledgling writer Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino) the third partner in their triumvirate. Together Charley and Mary sing “Old Friends” in recognition of the fact that Frank has drifted away from them, and Mary follows up with a plaintive solo wishing that everything was still “Like It Was.”

Further, in a television interview Charley sings a bitter song about Frank, deriding his transformation into “Franklin Shepard, INC.”

Unhappily, Frank acknowledges that although he is now rich and famous, he is miserable. His ambition has alienated his two best friends, cost him two divorces, and lost him his beloved son.

As the play retreats to an earlier time, Charley’s wife Beth (Whitney Bashor), on the brink of their divorce, sings about her love for him in the beautiful “Not A Day Goes By.”

In 1960 Charley, Beth, and Frank perform a light-hearted number called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” about the cultural proclivities of the Kennedys, and the show moves backwards to 1957 as the three principals find themselves on the roof of their apartment building in the early morning waiting to catch a glimpse of Sputnik. The satellite is an inspiration to them as a symbol of the possibilities of the future, and the show ends with Frank, Charley, and Mary and the entire company, full of optimism, singing what might be seen as the show’s theme: the joyful “Our Time.”

Beautifully mounted on a darkish set with lots of lights and mirrors to reflect and brighten the scenes and the dancers, the musical also includes a full orchestra in the pit in front of the stage.

In a recent interview Director Michael Arden, the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence at the Wallis, explained his fascination with “Merrily We Roll Along” with these words: “Because the show takes place backwards, the score is like a symphony heard in reverse. The opening number sounds like a closing number and the closing number sounds like the opening number. We hear the reprise of a song before the actual song. Yet it’s still one of Sondheim’s most beautiful and accessible scores.”

An appropriate compliment for the man responsible for the music and lyrics for such shows as Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into The Woods.

“Merrily We Roll Along” will be performed Tuesdays to Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through December 18 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 North Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (310) 746-4000.