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Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

In the directing debut of Maria Friedman, Sondheim's onetime Broadway flop soars anew

Three's company: Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley, and Mark Umbers revive Sondheim's story of friendships frayedTristram Kenton

On Broadway, Merrily We Roll Along remains forever scarred as the Stephen Sondheim musical that ground to an abrupt halt, closing after two weeks in 1981.

But New York's theatrical failures often exist to be discovered anew across the Atlantic, and so it has long proven with a show whose last London incarnation (at the Donmar in 2000) led to a best musical Olivier Award and that lives again at the Menier Chocolate Factory thanks to a first-time director in long-time Sondheim leading lady Maria Friedman, alongside three of the savviest, sharpest, most resonantly moving performances in town.

Marking her professional directing debut with a piece about rewinding the years, Friedman has chosen a musical that tallies with her own past. Amazingly, it's some two decades ago since I travelled to the Leicester Haymarket to see this actress/singer play the gradually embittered, ever-lovesick Mary Flynn in the first professional UK airing of a musical that Friedman returned to as director several years back, this time with Central School students. And here she is once again approaching material with an empathy and rigour that suggest a revision to the old adage about writing what you know. On the directing front, at least when it comes to Merrily, it's no bad thing to know this tricky yet potentially devastating piece inside out.

Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in Merrily We Roll AlongFor starters, there's the issue of which Merrily you decide to do, Sondheim's collaboration with the late George Furth (the composer's colleague previously on Company) having by this point accrued as many versions of itself as Hamlet. Gone is the high-school framing device (not to mention an opening song, "Rich and Happy") preferred by Michael Grandage, who led Merrily to London glory a dozen years ago. Book-ending Friedman's approach is the solitary image of Mark Umbers' searchingly played Franklin Shepard (pictured above, with Jenna Russell as Mary) in unspoken crisis. The question emanating from this superb actor's anguished eyes is taken up by Sondheim's lyric ("how did you get there from here?") and embedded in a piece that travels back 23 years to a once-hopeful past: what use all the world's lucre if in the process you waylay your soul? 

One abiding fascination with Merrily pertains directly to its creators, men at the time of the show's inception riding wave upon wave of success, putting their talents to work on material that wonders aloud as to the price of glory? And, of course, even within a show whose title is as crushingly ironic as this one, there's an added irony to our knowledge that its much-lamented premiere put a halt to just the sort of ongoing collaboration featured within the piece itself: since Merrily, Sondheim and his mightiest of directorial collaborators, Harold Prince, have worked together only once.

The three principals in Merrily We Roll AlongThe Franklin we see at the start - a beginning, given this show's structure, that is also its ending - is an in-demand Hollywood player with both the industry and all womankind at his feet. Gone missing along the way are his thrusting musical theatre aspirations, his family (he scarcely sees his son), and the bonds of friendship that were forged on the Sputnik-era New York rooftop where the narrative eventually lands, the shimmering buoyancy of the show's closing number, "Our Time", amplified by our awareness of the betrayals, heartache, and more that would afflict these innocents inhabiting that too-brief Elysium before life's abrasions come to call. (That rude awakening is itself a Sondheim constant, and one could imagine all three of this show's principals - pictured above - revisiting it someday in the same composer's Follies.)

Frank is easily the show's toughest part: like the self-inquisitive bachelor Bobby in Company, he's a man more acted upon than active, and Umbers's considerable achievement is to make us bleed for a character whom a lesser approach would summarily dismiss; he's not a malign figure, just a weak one, and surely it's no accident that the film we hear tell of at the start is entitled Darkness Before Dawn, which pretty much recaps the story that will roll bumpily along before us. Umbers conveys both qualities: the yearning composer on the brink of possibility whose life clouds over in front of our eyes.  

Jenna Russell in Merrily We Roll AlongThe other main roles are the ones that tend to win prizes (as, indeed, did Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro at the Donmar), and they are both here taken with surpassing skill. Looking unrecognisably geeky as the Marx Brother whom time forgot, the clarion-voiced Damian Humbley delivers easily the most electrifying "Franklin Shepard, Inc" in my experience, a solo number that moves from comedy to cruelty to amount to an on-air "slaughter" that in an instant stops a decades-long friendship sort. The most seasoned Sondheimian of the trio, the astonishing Jenna Russell lets us unpick the layers of self-loathing and regret that come to consume the once-avid writer, Mary, the years piling on both weight and drink as she makes war, not peace, with the fact that her beloved Frank will never be hers. (The moment late on where they first meet and Frank impetuously announces that he may just have found his wife is properly tumultuous.)

Among the rest, Josefina Gabrielle changes hairstyle, voice, and confidence to present a scarily complete view of the much-married Gussie, the Broadway diva who wraps the ever-pliable Frank around her pitiless fingers, and Glyn Kerslake makes an especially vivid Joe Josephson, Gussie's marital discard to whom it falls to tell the budding songwriting team of Charley and Frank, "Give me a melody" - a charge often levelled at Sondheim by his detractors, here contained within arguably his most richly melodic and open-hearted score. (Indeed, his melodies on several occasions fill in the ellipses that will forever attend Furth's book.) 

Is the production perfect? Not entirely. Fresh from winning a 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Award, Soutra Gilmour's set seems as blandly antiseptic as her costumes are hyper-consciously busy, and Tim Jackson's choreography has a pro forma air about it, notwithstanding a protracted tap sequence to open the second act. (The show-within-the-show, "Musical Husbands", isn't accidentally named, either.) It's difficult, too, in a piece where they are collectively billed in one number as "the blob" for the ensemble to avoid caricaturing their various split-second assignments, though perhaps that only throws attention back where it belongs: namely, on a fearless trio of leading players and their utterly attuned director. "Gives you the shivers," Frank remarks near the close, as, emotionally, this Merrily in every way does.  


Just as a matter of fact, the European professional premiere of MERRILY was staged at the Library Theatre Manchester in 1984

I first saw this in the back of beyond Edinburgh Fringe in 1982....changed my life for ever.

Where can I get a recording of this latest, Menier Chocolate Factory Version of Merrily We Roll Along?

A download will be available after the screenings on 23 December:

As far as I know, there isn't a soundtrack, though I'd welcome one as much as you.

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