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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Merrily We Roll Along
Menier Chocolate Factory  Winter 2012-2013; Harold Pinter Theatre Spring-Summer 2013

This is very much the year for first-rate revivals of second-rate Broadway musicals, and Maria Friedman's production of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth Merrily is an admirable addition to the list. 

A failure on Broadway in 1981, the musical has (like Sondheim's Follies) been rewritten and tinkered with repeatedly over the years – Sondheim's volume of collected lyrics offers alternate versions of almost every song – and the text used here differs from the one seen at the Donmar in 2000. 

The most notable change is cutting the clumsy frame of the school assembly and diving right into the story of Franklin Shepard, talented young songwriter who becomes a rich Hollywood producer, shedding friends, wives and values along the way. The gimmick is that, as in the 1930s play that inspired it, the story is told in reverse order, beginning with the successful but soul-dead Franklin and moving backward to the hopes and dreams of youth.

(As in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, the device doesn't really work, the ironies all being a bit obvious and heavy-handed, though in the musical it does allow for some nice effects, like having a reprise precede the full version of a song, and letting the show end with the optimistic 'Our Time'.) 

What Merrily does have are some of Sondheim's loveliest and most touching songs. In addition to 'Our Time' there's the double-edged love song 'Til The Day I Die', which can be inspirational or heart-breaking depending on who's singing it, the title song and the catchy 'Old Friends' – classics all of them. 

Maria Friedman is one of the West End's finest singing actresses – that is, she knows how to bring out all the meaning and emotion in a song – and as director she has guided most of her cast to similar psychological and emotional depths totally appropriate to this score and this show. 

One of the problems of Merrily is that the hero is introduced as a cold, soulless bastard and only gradually do we see the virtues he gave up to get there. But Mark Umbers finds everything in the man deserving of sympathy even in the first scenes, and all the more as he goes along, by making him less a determined money-grubber than a weakling who takes what seems the easy option at every point and only realises the cost later. He's more the prey of Josafina Gabrielle's man-eating Broadway star (a strong and never clichÚd characterisation) than an active philanderer. 

The one weak link in this production is in the character of Charley, Frank's collaborator and oldest friend. Every previous Charley I've seen has almost stolen the show with his energy and moral voice, but as if to avoid that, Friedman has directed Damian Humbley to underplay almost to the point of invisibility. 

His big number, 'Franklin Shepard Inc', is a damp squib rather than the explosion it should be (Sondheim has compared it to 'Rose's Turn' in Gypsy), and he isn't the strong reminder of how far Frank has strayed that he should be.

Partly because of that vacuum but mainly on the merits of her very strong performance, it is Jenna Russell as the gal-pal who has always loved Frank who becomes the play's moral centre and most sympathetic character. 

The backward plot means that Clare Foster enters late as Frank's first wife, but she pulls all the heartbreak there is out of the show's best song, 'Til The Day I Die', and Glyn Kerslake as a Broadway producer turns what could be a stock comic character into an attractive guy.

I suspect that nothing can fully conquer the built-in problems and limitations of Merrily We Roll Along, but they're outweighed by the beautiful score and by the several excellent performances here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Merrily We Roll Along - Menier 2012  

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