Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 30 November 2012

Merrily We Roll Along

Menier Chocolate Factory ⋄ 16th November 2012 – 23rd February 2013

The names in tomorrow’s papers.

M. F. Jones

It must have been gratifying for Stephen Sondheim when his complex, introspective, art-analysing musical, Sunday in the Park with George, premiered to considerable acclaim – and a Pulitzer Prize – in 1984, given that Merrily We Roll Along, a brave study on a similar subject, written just three years earlier, was a mystifying flop. I say “mystifying,” as the Merrily revival currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a breezy and stylish treat which begs the question: “How did the original team get it wrong?”

Numerous factors have been acknowledged over the years, not least the ludicrous decision to clothe actors in sweatshirts with their character’s description – “ex-wife,” “best friend,” and so forth – emblazoned on the front in an attempt to clarify the non-chronological plot for the confused audience; Sondheim also later explained that he considered the production miscast. The original cast of young unknowns convinced as the twentysomething versions of their characters, but failed to convey the disillusionment of the older counterparts upon which the show’s significance depends.

Actor Maria Friedman, here making her directorial début, pays attention to the lessons of history by staging the Sondheim-approved revised libretto, and casting older veterans in the lead roles. Clearly an actor’s director, her simple and unfussy control of the action, in tandem with Tim Jackson’s fluid choreography, allows the charisma of the performers to reveal itself naturally. The story, which unfolds backwards, concerns the trio of old friends Franklin (Mark Umbers), Charley (Damian Humbley) and Mary (Jenna Russell), who dream that their future achievements in writing and composing will see them become “the names in tomorrow’s papers.” As their careers progress, however, Frank’s decision to flirt with commercial success at the expense of artistic fulfilment causes an irreparable rift with idealistic writing partner Charley, while Mary drifts towards alcoholism as her love for Frank remains unrequited.

The dialogue brims with old-school wisecracks and zingy bitchiness – particularly from world-weary Mary and withering Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle), the steely Broadway star having an affair with Frank. As may be expected, therefore, dramatic choices tend towards the broader end of the spectrum, and subtler nuances are occasionally lacking. Each of the three leads demonstrates flashes of ingenuity: Umbers finds a helplessness in Frank that manages to endear us to the often-unsympathetic character; Humbley is endlessly inventive with what is admittedly a ready-made showstopper of a number, ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc.’, in which Charlie unleashes a Network-style live-televised rant at Frank; and Russell achieves moments of gut-wrenching bleakness within Mary’s sardonic set-pieces. The surprising stand-out moment comes from a supporting player: Clare Foster, in the less-showy role of Frank’s ex-wife Beth, invests ‘Not a Day Goes By’ with astonishing sincerity.

Sondheim’s melodic, evocative score captures both the naïve unsophistication of the younger characters in artful pastiche, and the wisdom of their autumn years in warm harmonies, coloured with wistful dissonance. The most beautifully-articulated lyrics are sung by one-time author Mary in ‘Like It Was’ and ‘Now You Know’, while ‘Old Friends’, an upbeat ditty as close to a conventional Broadway tune as Sondheim ever wrote, rarely fails to induce that goosebumpy thrill even among cynics.

Truthfully, though, the most notable quality of Merrily has always been its reverse chronology; we meet the characters at the zenith (or nadir) of their respective careers, and spend the next two and a half hours tracing their journeys backwards twenty years until we see them, wide-eyed on a rooftop, about to embark. It’s essentially a framing gimmick, the major advantage of which is the unbearable accumulation of dramatic irony. Hearing the trio sing the final sentimental paean to youthful ambition, ‘Our Time’, having already seen the feuds, failures, divorces and addictions of their later years, should result in heartbreaking poignancy. And I believe it can. Yet something in this revival’s finale lacks. Everything that Friedman has gained in casting older actors – experience, skill, wit, irony – makes an arch, witty, sparkling delight out of the first three-quarters of her production, but the indelible final image of Merrily – those three young ‘uns playing dress-up – is sacrificed. And ultimately, that image is the most affecting one, the elevation, the coup de théâtre. Without it, the piece is thought-provoking. With it, it’s devastating.

As the exit music played, I was left wondering whether the age issue really was the deciding factor in Merrily‘s initial failure, and wished I could have seen those three young unknowns do it in New York back in 1981, if only for that inexplicable frisson one feels when a flawed, unrevised work achieves an unexpected greatness in the final scene.


M. F. Jones

Matthew trained with the National Youth Music Theatre (2002-3), and graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a joint honours degree in Classics and English. He is best known as one half of Frisky and Mannish, cabaret double-act and "global phenomenon" (The Times). The duo have performed at Sydney Opera House and Shepherd's Bush Empire, appeared on BBC2 and Radio 1, and enjoyed four sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. As an actor, he played the lead role in Steven Bloomer's Punch at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Other credits include: Oklahoma! (Sadler's Wells), The Threepenny Opera (Oxford Playhouse) and The Secret Garden (King's Head). He also works as a writer and composer

Merrily We Roll Along Show Info

Directed by Maria Friedman

Cast includes Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell, Ashley Robinson, Amy Ellen Richardson, Zizi Strallen, Josefina Gabrielle, Glyn Kerslake, Clare Foster




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