Monday, August 19, 2013

"We roll along... merrily, merrily..."

Poster for the 2013 London revival. (Source)
When I got round to booking tickets to see Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it was unfortunately already sold out so all I could hope for was a West End transfer and I am still over the moon that this actually took place and I got the opportunity to go and see another Sondheim.

Merrily We Roll Along at Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Performance: Wednesday 24th April 2013 at 19:45
Seat: Front row Circle
Cast included: Mark Umbers (Franklin Shepard), Jenna Russell (Mary Flynn), Damian Huntley (Charley Kringas), Clare Foster (Beth), Glyn Kerslake (Joe Josephson), Josefina Gabrielle (Gussie Carnegie)

Merrily We Roll Along was a very different kind of musical to anything I had seen before. The narrative flows backwards from the main character, Frank, now having a successful career to when he was young and inexperienced. It highlights the key moments in Frank's life explaining how he got to where he is. The show is to a great extent about the friendship between Frank, Charley and Mary and the way it has changed over time.

The first Broadway production of the musical, in 1981, did not do well despite the involvement of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. The reviews were bad and the production closed after 44 previews and 16 regular performances. Merrily is a fairly difficult one to put together and it's not your box standard Broadway musical so if you are looking to see lots of big, flashy ensemble dance numbers, this is not the show for you. The complexity of the narrative stems from the certain abstract element and the fact that it has been reversed makes it different to many other musicals. Personally I think Merrily could even be viewed as a play with singing rather than a musical in a similar way to Blood Brothers for instance.

The score is ingeniously woven together to connect the main characters and this made the whole production feel complete and because many of the songs sounded musically similar, it was easy to focus on the plot and the lyrics instead of getting carried away with the melody - something Sondheim does very well. In addition, I particularly liked the smooth scene changes which were accompanied by the ensemble singing a reprise of the title song. (I have a big problem with awkward/slow scene changes in general but in this show they were top notch on every possible scale.)

Trailer for the West End production:

I guess one of the big challenges with Merrily is that you have to find actors for the three leads who are able to play the characters at all ages. You can't choose anyone too young because they are unlikely to have the life experience to convincingly portray the character at an older age but on the other hand, you can't take it to the opposite extreme as that is likely to generate the opposite problem with the actors not necessarily being convincing as youngsters. I thought the casting overall was very successful. I was surprised to see Clare Foster walk on stage too. I did not realise she would be in this show. I saw her play the female lead in Crazy for You at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 2011 and really enjoyed her performance then. Seeing her now as Beth really made me appreciate her versatility as an actress as the two characters are very different.

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