Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along [Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre]

Merrily We Roll Along
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, based on an original play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart

Franklin Shepard – Mark Umbers
Charley Kringas – Damian Humbley
Mary Flynn – Jenna Russell
Tyler – Ashley Robinson
Terry / Mr Spencer – Martin Callaghan
Scotty / Mrs Spencer – Amanda Minihan
Dory – Samantha Mercer
Ru – Matthew Barrow
Jerome – Robbie Scotcher
KT – Amy Ellen Richardson
Meg Kincaid – Zizi Strallen
Gussie Carnegie – Josefina Gabrielle
TV Newswoman – Joanna Woodward
Bunker / TV Newsman / Reverend – Kirk Patterson
Joe Josephson – Glyn Kerslake
Frank Jr – Noah Miller, Tommy Rodger or Joseph West
Beth – Clare Foster

The Band: Catherine Jayes (musical director, piano, keyboards), Bernie La Fontaine (flutes, clarinets, alto saxophone), Emma Fowler (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Danielle Hartley (clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, baritone saxophone), Edward Maxwell & Chris Seddon (trumpets), Magnus Dearness (trombone), Paul Moylan (double bass), James O’Carroll (percussion)

Maria Friedman – Director
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Tim Jackson – Choreographer
David Hersey – Lighting Designer
Gareth Owen – Sound Designer
Jason Carr – Dance Arrangements

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 1 December, 2012
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London

Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of the Kaufman & Hart play first appeared in New York in 1981. It was not a hit and it has been chasing success ever since. With hindsight Sondheim has said that it should have opened off-Broadway. What audiences they had began leaving at the interval; those who stayed didn’t appear to enjoy a show they found confusing (it is played in reverse chronological order) and it was an obscure production with problematical costumes and sets. It took nearly twenty years for the show to reach a professional West End London theatre, although it had appeared in a revised version at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in 1992 with a cast that included Michael Cantwell and Maria Friedman. There were other performances in the UK, including a couple of student productions, and in 2000 Merrily We Roll Along finally received its London professional premiere at the Donmar Warehouse where it won Olivier Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Actress and was revived two years later. The revised version has also appeared in several American cities, including this year at New York City Center and in Cincinnati.

The original 1934 play was itself a flop and has never been revived. It featured a playwright whose early promise as a serious writer petered out when he became a creator of trivial but highly popular stage comedies. He made his money but his personal and artistic lives remained unresolved. The play progresses from his great commercial success back to the years when he was a student and at a time when he was happiest. For the musical treatment Sondheim and George Furth made antihero Franklin Shepard a songwriter and film producer. At the beginning (the end) he is on his second wife but also seeing another woman; he has dropped his best friend and former song-writing collaborator, Charley Kringas; and driven a woman writer friend to drink, and all in the process of selling out his creative talents by becoming a crass commercial success. The plot begins in 1976 and goes back to 1957. This may have been the show’s undoing because its first audiences probably couldn’t take a downbeat ending (albeit at the start of the show) that progresses back to achieve a happy beginning.

For this production Sondheim has tweaked the 1985 version of the show, added and subtracted some scenes and cut some songs and added a new number skilfully choreographed by Tim Jackson that opens Act Two. Sadly some of the best numbers were jettisoned in the revision, such as ‘The hills of tomorrow’, a graduation song that originally opened and closed the show, and now ‘Rich and happy’, a number by the chattering classes, which is mostly ditched except for the recurring refrain of “These are the movers / These are the shapers / These are the people / That fill the papers”. Numbers added in the 1985 edition include ‘That Frank’, ‘Growing up’ and ‘The blob’. Sondheim has endeavoured to tighten up the piece and in Maria Friedman he has the ideal director. She is making her directorial debut and it’s an amazingly sure-footed one.

The original production had a fairly young cast who were not too convincing as their older selves. Here the cast is older but manage to appear to grow younger as the years drop away. Mark Umbers is particularly good as Shepard, a tough, unhappy cookie at the start but mellowing into youthful gaucheness by the end. Damien Humbley as Charley makes a convincing patsy who is put upon by an unfeeling Shepard and ultimately doomed to lose out. Jenna Russell is Mary Flynn, the writer who really loves Shepard but instead retreats into a bottle of booze to dull the pain of indifference from Shepard – and she never does write that novel. Josefina Gabrielle as Shepard’s second wife Gussie is a sassy bitch – she and Shepard deserve each other as both remain egotistical to the bitter end. Clare Foster as Shepard’s first wife Beth is very moving; like Mary she still loves the man and her rendition of ‘Not a day goes by’, one of the show’s best songs, is a moving experience.

The sound from the nine-piece band is brilliant under Catherine Jayes’s spot-on direction and Soutra Gilmour’s chic designs give the piece a brittle, hard-edged look. If Sondheim has gone a little too far in his tweaking, the musical still remains something of a puzzle, resolutely refusing to hang together satisfactorily – this may, nevertheless, still be the best production that Merrily We Roll Along will ever get. I miss the cut songs but, as Sondheim has overseen the production, he must know what works and what doesn’t. The score is pure Sondheim and shouldn’t be missed.

  • Merrily We Roll Along is at Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 until Saturday 23 February 2013
  • Tuesday to Saturday 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 3.30 p.m.
  • No performances 24 to 26 December; extra performances 27 December at 3.30 p.m. & 30 December
  • Tickets 020 7378 1713

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