Merrily We Roll Along

Book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Alex Parker Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Merrily we Roll Along

It’s not usual to see in the programme notes that originally the show was a spectacular flop, but it seems that in1981 Broadway audiences were not ready for the Sondheim style of musical and the cast were too young and inexperienced to make the characters live. Since then, the show has been reborn, revamped and cut a little to become a favourite cult musical.

Here, it is presented with a large ensemble cast, but the main focus is the three friends who, in their young student days, watched the launch of Sputnik from a New York rooftop. The conquering of space, they felt, was a dream come true. Anything was possible, and they swore undying friendship as they planned to change the world. Franklin, Charley and Mary, full of enthusiasm and confidence, are about to begin their careers as songwriter, lyricist and writer.

This scene we don’t see until the end of the show as it begins at the end (if that makes sense) in 1980 at a lavish showbiz party where Franklin, now a wealthy film producer, is more intent on money than integrity. Charley (Elliott Griffiths), a family man with four children, needs a prevaricating Franklin to get going on with the show they were to produce—and when was it that Mary started drinking, now a hopelessly addicted alcoholic berating everyone at the party as shallow and uninteresting as she crashes off her bar stool and drunkenly staggers up the stairs and away. It seems dreams are not so easily achieved after all.

As we travel backwards in time, we see how choices and events changed them, how friendships splintered and outside influences (mainly a strong-willed actress called Gussie) interfered with their plans. Ana Richardson’s Mary is the one who evokes the most sympathy. In love with Lee Thomas’s Franklin from the start, she sees him go through two marriages and change to avaricious selfishness.

There is a fine, dramatic performance from Anna Twaits as the predatory Gussie, throwing iodine into the face of a young potential starlet, and we also meet Gussie’s ex-husband Joe (Adam Linstead), in 1960 a famous and influential producer and now down and out and borrowing money from his ex-wife. Does Franklin remember that in 1960 he was so in awe of the great man?

Sondheim’s music is not the easiest to manage and particularly difficult to sing but, under the direction of Alex Parker, it is played here superbly by a nine-piece orchestra just visible at the back of the stage and, with one or two slight exceptions, sung beautifully with perfect timing and cadence, the songs totally integrated into the story. Charlotte Conquest directs a very tight show and timing is perfection and mostly at high speed as one era follows another in reverse direction.

There is a lot of humour with one particularly memorable episode of dramatic comedy in a television interview as Charlie blows his top and lets rip on screen with his grievances against Franklin (Lee Thomas) who sits with a thoughtful expression as if considering the truth of the accusations, before reverting to egocentric mode while the interviewer is going bananas trying to get them off the screen.

Is this show an ironical look at adulthood, cynically pointing out the impossibility of achieving dreams, or a warning of the importance of nurturing friendships? Whatever its motive, I found it a very enjoyable and interesting evening.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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