Merrily We Roll Along
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
The fourth Sondheim musical at Derby Playhouse in three years - and possibly the finest.
The theatre has recognised that there's a market for the American composer's complicated yet clever productions. Surprising as it may seem, people come from all over the world to Derby to see Sondheim - on the strength of Merrily We Roll Along it's not difficult to see why.
All but the first Sondheim at the Playhouse, Sweeney Todd, have been directed by Karen Louise Hebden who's raised the bar with each new musical and surpassed her own high standards.
The pre-publicity for Company in 2005 indicated that it featured "the best singing cast ever assembled for a UK production". Yet the ensemble of thirteen for Merrily We Roll Along is arguably even better.
To start with there's Glyn Kerslake, a previous Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, as Frank Shepard, a composer whose search for success and stardom carries with it the breakdown of relationships with all the people close to him. There's no need to point out that Kerslake is an excellent singer; he's also a fine actor who changes physically and emotionally during the nineteen years encompassed by the production. He's also a gifted piano player and gets plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents.
Then there's Glenn Carter as lyricist Charley Kringas. This is his third Sondheim at Derby and the former lead in Jesus Christ Superstar isn't chosen only for his massive, almost cult-status popularity. In previous productions he's given the impression of singing without being particularly adventurous; here his talents are allowed to flourish and he gives an astonishing performance. In fact his character is one of the few who earns the audience's sympathy in the first act. More of that later.
There's also Eliza Lumley who's just finished playing Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins in the West End. She has the greatest metamorphosis of all the characters as Mary Flynn who is in love with Frank and has to suffer constant rejection. As the drink-fuelled, embittered, downtrodden outcast she is totally different from the impressionable, blindly supportive close friend of earlier days.
The three actors, who've all appeared in previous Sondheim shows at the Playhouse, work delightfully together while their enthusiasm and professionalism are matched by the rest of the cast.
Merrily We Roll Along is a strangely constructed musical in that it moves backwards in time, starting in 1976 when Frank Shepard is at the top of his career yet his friendships are at their most fractious, and ending in 1957 when the three leading characters are full of hope and expectancy.
It's ingenious in theory but it means few of the individuals are likeable in the initial stages. It's only in the second act when Sondheim shows us how the trio of friends display the typical American trait of overcoming adversity that you warm to them.
As with most Sondheim musicals the tunes aren't instantly recognisable. The composer even sends himself up when producer Joe Josephson remarks about one of Frank and Charley's musicals, "There ain't a tune you can hum."
And the ending is rather an anti-climax. There's irony when the trio sing about how they're full of dreams for the future because you know the reality of what will happen - but the song doesn't build to the high spot you're expecting.
However, there are some great one-liners in the script. In 1976 Frank proclaims, "The worst vice in the world is advice, so I don't give it."
Hebden directs Merrily We Roll Along with verve and astuteness. She knows what will work, even down to the enlightening use of video to illustrate world events during the different eras of the play.
With Andrew Synnott skilfully leading a six-piece band, it's a memorable evening's entertainment. The musical isn't Sondheim's finest but it's performed so amazingly well that the cast and musicians make up for any shortfalls in the concept.
Merrily We Roll Along shows yet again that Derby Playhouse isn't only the most prolific performer of Sondheim's work - it's probably the best too.
"Merrily We Roll Along" runs until May 19th
Reviewer: Steve Orme