Saturday 4 May 2013

Merrily We Roll Along

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Book by George Furth
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Maria Friedman

Josefina Gabrielle leads the line in Musical Husbands
Some 6 months after it opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Maria Friedman's production of Merrily We Roll Along takes up a three month residence in the West End's Harold Pinter theatre. And like a fine wine or spirit, this production has beautifully matured over the months and should be savoured as a finely crafted piece of theatre.

This backward journey of composer Franklin Shepard's life, that opens in 1976 with his lover, his second wife and oldest closest friend deserting him amidst a party of vacuuous  Hollywood celebrities, is encapsulated in one line from the show's opening number (and title song) " how did you ever get there from here?" And it is that question that underlies Sondheim's lyrics and Furth's brilliant book as from there, almost as in some crazy, backwards whizzing theme park ride, this show hurtles us back in time through nineteen years, pausing only to chart the key events within the two friendships and marriages that Frank builds and then destroys.

This show has no gimmicks whatsoever. It is simply the finest assembly of musical theatre talent in town, led by the novice but nonetheless brilliant direction of Friedman, who herself  has built up a lifelong understanding of Sondheim's work.

Mark Umbers is Frank. A gifted composer whose talents are selfishly and callously wasted over the years in pursuit of cash and ultimately cocaine. The decline of his friendship with lyricist Charlie Kringas is deliciously spelt out by the writer, played by Damian Humbley as always at his very best, in a solo number Franklin Shepherd, Inc, in which Kringas, live on national TV,tells of his friend's love for contracts and cheque books over and above the more human passions of people and piano. Completing this doomed trio of friends is Jenna Russell's Mary Flynn (a role in fact played by Friedman in 1992). Of all the key characters, Sondheim gives Flynn no solo numbers, but don't be deceived. The very best of Sondheim's acerbic put-downs and one-liners, ever, are all hers and whilst her plaintive harmonies sung in Old Friends are exquisite her pain at losing her adored Frank to his first wife Beth, sung at their wedding in 1960 in a reprise of Not A Day Goes By, is gut wrenching.

Clare Foster's Beth is a beautiful, trusting, naive Southern Belle. When she ultimately learns of Frank's infidelity, her beauty displays a further facet, as hurt and betrayed she grief-stricken but fiercely protective and possessive of their young son, sings Not A Day Goes By as a solo set in 1967 outside of a New York divorce court. The song is immense. It destroys the audience, reduced this writer to a mess and is perhaps one of the most perceptive yet poetic descriptions ever written of selfless love that has been destroyed by a selfish partner.

Wife number 2 is Gussie Carnegie, an already divorced man-eater of a Broadway star, who finds Frank's zipper an easy if not submissively willng,  challenge to overcome. Josefina Gabrielle is a delight in this role, bereft early on in act one at rejection in favour of a younger starlet and stunning in the show-within-a-show number Musical Husbands. A true star of London's West End, Gabrielle's voice and presence only improves with her career.

This show has expanded perfectly to fit the impressive Harold Pinter proscenium. Sound and movement have all been seamlessly upgraded to tackle the larger stage and David Hersey's subtle lighting adds masterful touches. Catherine Jayes easily takes her ten piece band from offstage at the Menier to the Pinter pit and her understanding of Sondheim's composition is faultless. From brassy upbeat, to searing ironic agony, to the heavenly harmony that is Our Time, every note is explored to the full.

This is a show that's only here on a 12 week visit. As this review is published, the press are commenting that no West End show has ever garnered as many 5-star ratings (and lest Hecuba is accused of simply following the trend, this review's 5-star opinion was tweeted straight after curtain down on press night!). Merrily We Roll Along started out magnificent, and has simply become even better. Are there, or have there ever been, any other shows of this calibre? Damn few.

Runs to 27 July 2013

Picture: Tristram Kenton

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