Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Book by George Furth
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Maria Friedman
|Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley|
Merrily We Roll Along is regarded by many as one of Stephen Sondheim’s finest pieces of musical theatre. It presents a challenging scenario to any director, not least to first-timer Maria Friedman, who deploys her considerable understanding of the composer’s work in bringing this piece to the compact but imaginatively structured stage of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.
The story opens at a 1976 party at the home of Hollywood producer Frank Shepard and which is a snapshot of all that is corrosively corrupt about Tinseltown. Shepard's second marriage is on the rocks, his long-standing songwriting partnership with pal Charlie Kringas is over and Mary Flynn, old college friend of both Frank and Charlie has become a bitter alcoholic. From this shattered patchwork of lives we watch as the years are rolled back and the broken pieces of these three friendships slowly and magically move back into the beautiful whole that they once were when the trio met at college some twenty years previously.
Sondheim is a master of portraying the human condition and few composers can better or more accurately depict the ropes that bind human relationships and the stresses that they impose on the individuals they lash together. Friedman, whilst a novice director, is no stranger to Sondheim's complexities. She coaxes a masterful performance from Mark Umbers as Shepard, a man ultimately led by his zipper, and whose sincere creativity breaks down to reveal a ruthless pursuit of success. His character's moral decline is subtle, and Umbers suggests his descent with understated nuance, occasional anger and above all beautiful voice. Humbley reprises his north american Jewish schlemiel ( last deployed as Max in Lend Me A Tenor) only here he bares teeth as well as the expected comforting ineptitude. In Franklin Shepard, Inc a song set in 1973, he savages the composer on live TV, definitively ending their relationship, for his outrageous egoism in a performance that is as charged with pathos as it is with brilliant wit.
Of the three leads Jenna Russell’s Mary is perhaps the least satisfying. If there is one flaw in the story’s structure it is that her unrequited and unwittingly spurned, love for Frank is not explored deeper though in Old Friends and above all in Our Time, she contributes to haunting harmonies. Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle play Frank’s first and second wives respectively. Sondheim introduces us to Beth, Foster’s Southern belle by way of her devastation and betrayal, leading to the ultimate revelation of her youthful charms of trusted talented sensitivity being all the more poignant. Gabrielle’s maneater showgirl Gussie is a treat of performance. She commands the stage as well as the men and of all the characters who reverse-age through the show, her journey back in time is the most convincing. Credit also to Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan who play Beth's ignorant redneck parents with some wonderful one-liners.
Tim Jackson’s choreography impresses throughout, most especially during The Blob, in which his routine cleverly suggests that the star chasing vacuity of media hangers-on was as shallow in 1962 as during the cocaine fuelled party era that set the opening tone of the show, some fourteen years later.
The production is unquestionably, fine musical theatre with intelligent production values bestowed upon this most intelligent of writers. It should not be missed.
Runs to 23 February 2013