Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
Director: Maria Friedman.
The Menier Chocolate Factory’s outstanding production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has received a much-deserved West End transfer. First time director Maria Friedman has proven that she has what it takes to become a name we are sure to see in the future.
With a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along is the story of idealistic composer turned hotshot Hollywood producer Franklin, and his ‘old friends’; novelist Mary and playwright Charley. Starting in 1976 and travelling backwards through three decades, it asks the question, ‘how did you get to be here?’ The musical tries to discover how the friends ended up so estranged, leaving none of them satisfied or happy, living lives none of them expected to. Friedman has made sense of this chronology by framing it as unfolding inside Franklin’s head, as he looks back over his life. This is a brilliant addition, which clarifies the structure of the piece, making it far easier to grasp.
The casting is spot on, with exceptional vocals from the entire cast. Jenna Russell stands out, giving a heart wrenching performance as Mary, the writer who, let down by life and love, becomes something of an alcoholic. Her husky vocal in the opening scene grows younger as the show goes on, as the years of smoking and drinking are rewound. Her tough-love number ‘Now You Know’ is one of the highlights of the first act, and her desperation to hold the three together is perfectly pitched. Damian Humbley gives a dryly-witty performance as the playwright Charley. His bitter, explosive number ‘Franklin Sheperd, Inc.’ is absolutely fantastic, and has the audience in stitches. His portrayal of contained anger bursting out is excellent, and his low-key performance is superb throughout. Mark Umbers’ portrayal of Franklin is perhaps a little too far away from Humbley’s Charley, making it a little difficult to entirely believe their friendship. He oozes narcissistic charisma in a way that it is unsurprising that his friends tire of him, and there is a danger that the audience might as well. That said, the three actors flawlessly capture the chemistry of three old friends, particularly in the number ‘Old Friends’.
Clare Foster as Franklin’s first wife Beth gives a strong performance, and her spat out, anti-love song ‘Not A Day Goes By’, sung outside a divorce court, is heart-breaking. Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie is wonderfully, icily played by Josephina Gabrielle. The ensemble is vital to the success of this show, and they are all perfectly cast. Zizi Strallen shines. There is a long career ahead for this young actress; a leading lady in the making. Joanna Woodward, Julie Jupp and Kirk Patterson also stand out in a variety of roles throughout.
Watching Friedman’s production, it is hard to see how anyone ever failed to love Merrily We Roll Along. It is musical theatre at its most adult, its most astute, its most human. Furth’s book is sharply funny, with a painful emotional sting in its tail, and Sondheim’s score is one of musical theatre’s best. Musical director Catherine Jayes leads the astonishing band flawlessly. The reprise of ‘Not A Day Goes By’, sung at Beth and Franklin’s wedding, is one of the most spine-tinglingly, moving uses of a reprise in any musical on the West End. The structure means that you see the story with the benefit of hindsight, just as Franklin does, giving the hopeful finale ‘Our Time’ a bittersweet edge.
Maria Friedman’s dazzling directorial debut brings one of Sondheim’s greatest works to the West End with impeccable style. A definitive production of Merrily We Roll Along for a new generation of Sondheim lovers. Get tickets before they are gone.
Merrily We Roll Along plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre for a limited 12 week run, until July 27 2013. Tickets start at £10. Photos by Tristram Kenton.