Merrily We Roll Along
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
Menier Chocolate Factory Productions
Harold Pinter Theatre
Merrily We Roll Along is not your average musical. With a plot that unfolds backwards this is a show that needs concentration and investment.
Starting in 1976 and finishing in 1957, the story centres on Franklin Shepard (a hugely charismatic Mark Umbers), a composer whose pursuit of success puts at jeopardy all of his existing relationships. The flashy and fashionable character in the first scene is a far cry from the earnest but naïve man we meet in the 1960s and the score repeatedly asks, “How did it happen? How did you get from there to here?” What follows is a series of key moments from his past that define the wealthy but ultimately unhappy man of the first scene.
Tangled in the web are his two best friends lyricist Charley (underplayed beautifully by Damian Humbley) and writer Mary (a heartbreaking Jenna Russell) who is in love with him. There is genuine chemistry between the three and "Old Friends" is a sparky number made all the more poignant by their deteriorating relationships.
Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle also contrast perfectly as Frank’s two wives and the gradual change in their characters is subtly portrayed. Foster’s rendition of "Not a Day Goes By" is incredibly moving. It is clear to see why Gabrielle’s seductive theme "Growing Up" tempts the character of Frank so greatly.
These five are supported by a fantastic ensemble who switch characters with ease and are particularly hilarious as "the blob", representing the 1960s in-crowd. For those wanting a traditional song and dance number, the finale of Frank and Charley’s show Musical Husbands shows off the dance ability of this cast whilst the demanding score more than demonstrates their vocal ability.
Despite the unhappy path the characters tread, this is not a show that will make you feel low. The youthful idealism of the closing scene gives it the sensation of a happy ending and there are plenty of comedy moments scattered through script and score. Maria Friedman has done fine job reviving this notoriously difficult show and it deserves to be seen.
Reviewer: Amy Yorston