A dark, yet uplifting, musical that celebrates and rewards the intelligence of its adult audience, Merrily We Roll Along is given a lean, incisive treatment by dedicated Sondheim company Watch This.
As the world laments its current political choices, the myriad life choices of composer-turned-film-producer Franklin Shepherd unfurl before our eyes as the musical addresses the question “How did you get to be here?”. Following the unique format of its source material, Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play, Merrily We Roll Along unfolds in reverse, beginning with a scalding scene in which Frank is miserable in his success and then progressing backwards through the show biz trials of he and his old friends Mary and Charley.
There is an added pain in seeing someone make decisions for which the consequences have already been shown, and director Sara Grenfell takes a particularly unflinching look at the elusive, fleeting and superficial nature of fame. The furtive glances, blatant betrayals and withering zingers of George Furth’s book land with intensity, aided not only by the talents of the cast but also by the relative intimacy of the venue.
While Merrily We Roll Along is one of Broadway’s most notable flops, as chronicled brilliantly in 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, audiences need not allow this aspect to deter their attendance. A significant aspect of the flop was that audiences would not pay Broadway prices to watch a young and inexperienced cast. This angle has not been replicated here, as the actors are closer to the characters’ final mature ages rather than their initial tender ages.
Apart from the enjoyment of the intricate mechanics of the reverse-engineered plot, the cherished score for Merrily We Roll Along is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most accomplished. In line with the backward timeline, reprises are heard before full songs, and songs are heard being written after they have already been sung. Patter song “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” provides a tour de force for Charley, and semi-autobiographical song “Opening Doors” is a lively showstopper for Frank, Charley and Mary. The brittle tension of the book scenes is given welcome relief in sweetly melodic songs such as “Old Friends” and “Good Thing Going,” not to mention the gorgeous glowing optimism of the final song “Our Time.”
In presenting this boutique production, Watch This has allocated the available budget wisely. Scenic elements are few, while period costumes are plentiful. A single piano serves as accompaniment, but the choice of theatre provides an extra polish to the season. The cast is wonderful, and the chance to hear the performers sing acoustically adds to the intimate connection.
The cast has been expertly prepared by musical director Cameron Thomas, who provides masterful accompaniment on piano.
Emily Collett’s simple scenic design flexibly portrays the wide range of settings required for the bicoastal story. Collett’s attractive costumes distinguish the multiple characters played by the ensemble and provide a vital, tangible sign of the reverse passage through the years.
For a musical that is weighted towards ballads, David Wynen provides a healthy supply of nimble choreography. The three leads are well served, with fun moves illustrating the camaraderie on display in “Old Friends” and bringing to life the satire of revue number “Bobbie and Jackie and Jack.”
Nicole Melloy is on fire as acerbic writer Mary. Unafraid to appear frumpy, Melloy takes Mary from embittered alcoholic back to peacekeeper, pragmatic realist, successful author, lovelorn wallflower and, eventually, to her initial incarnation as wide-eyed girl. Melloy’s convincing physical transformation adds to the power of her compelling portrayal, and her singing is excellent.
With a talent that is ripe for discovery by commercial producers, Nelson Gardner gives a warm and charismatic performance as noble playwright Charley. Gardner nails the fiendishly difficult “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.,” leaving the audience cheering for more.
Lyall Brooks imbues Frank with the confident swagger of a successful man who is accustomed to being at the centre of everyone’s orbit. This bravado is neatly offset whenever Brooks’ eyes fill with tears as Frank repeatedly loses those he loves. Playing best friends, Brooks, Melloy and Gardner interact with a palpable warmth and trust that belie the relatively short rehearsal period.
As Frank’s first wife Beth, Sophie Weiss has to sing a climactic song, the searing ballad “Not A Day Goes By,” as soon as she steps on stage. Versatile actress Weiss takes this challenge easily in her stride, instantly bringing out the tender vulnerability in the wounded young woman, and then later showing the trust and good humour Beth enjoyed before she was so badly hurt.
As the fiercely ambitious Gussie, Cristina D’Agostino plays a strident character who is unlikeable for much of act one. Returning to Gussie’s humbler origins later in act two, D’Agostino successfully brings out a calmer, more agreeable young woman.
Mark Doggett is well cast as producer Joe Josephson, a flawed man who can see talent but foolishly overlooks deceit.
Young actor Darcy Bryce charms in eth cameo role of Frankie Junior, instantly endearing himself to the audience and then tugging on their heartstrings in the painful courthouse scene.
The multitalented ensemble members sing superbly, move effortlessly and convincingly play a cornucopia of character roles.
Anyone who has ever lamented the frivolity of musical theatre should rush to experience the sophisticated wit and insightful intelligence of Merrily We Roll Along.
Merrily We Roll Along plays at The Lawler, Southbank Theatre until 15 July 2017
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson