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
Categories: Music Theatre, Reviews
How times have changed. A flop on Broadway in 1981, Merrily seems a masterpiece today. Best wishes to all involved with this production. Simon’s knowledge and passion for musical theatre is most appreciated.
Thanks for your kind words Rob.
I feel like it helps a little bit that we all know and understand the backwards storytelling now. But given the beauty of the score it is incredible that the just the music was not enough to save it back then.
Watched this production on opening night and your review nails it!!!!
Thanks Anthony. I’m still thinking about all those great characters. I watched Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened again yesterday and now I want to go back to Merrily. Maybe near the end of their run..
Another great review!
MWRA is one of my favourite Sondheim shows, if not one of my favourite musicals of all time. I have seen three separate productions, as well as the West End Live taping from the Menier Chocolate Factory, with Australia’s own Damien Humbley as Charlie.
Having attended their takes on Pacific Overtures and Company, this sounds like another winner from the Watch This team.
I bought myself a ticket for my birthday, which happens to land on closing night. I can’t wait.
Thanks very much Nick.
I really love the show as well, and am always keen to see new productions. I really love the double album cast recording from NY’s Encores (featuring none other than Lin Manuel Miranda as Charley).
Have you watched Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened? An absolute must see for fans of Merrily.
Sounds like a perfect birthday. Enjoy!
Best wishes, Simon
As soon as I read your review, I ran a search for the documentary. The great news is that I can watch it on Amazon, which I will do before I see the show. It looks like a wonderful experience, but I can tell from the trailer, that I’ll need a box of tissues on stand – by.
OMG. Lin Manuel Miranda would be perfect as Charley. Thank goodness Encores had the insight to do a CD recording. Looks like I am off to run another search!
Cheers for now
Best Worst Thing is also on Netflix, if you have it. A tissue or two is definitely for watching this documentary.
The Encores double album of Merrily is one of my all time favourite cast recordings. Highly recommended!
I agree with your comment re critics. ‘Sondheim’s vision lacks emotional depth and sophistication …’ Just ridiculous!
Thanks for your support, Rob.
The review in our national paper was even worse.
I can see that it would have been far more ideal to have an orchestra, or at least a band, and a longer rehearsal period would have helped, but the tickets are under $50, which is terrific for accessibility.
I love this show, and applaud any company taking a chance to produce it.
Your reviewing style is always on point.
I appreciate how you always accentuate the positive, and understand the hard work companies put into to getting a show up and running.