Friday, 30 November 2012

Theatre review: Merrily We Roll Along

Maria Friedman has a long association with Stephen Sondheim's work as a performer, and she now has a go at directing his work as well, with Merrily We Roll Along coming to the Menier Chocolate Factory as the big winter musical (Sondheim at the Menier presumably considered a safer bet after last year's crack dream.) Merrily, like Pinter's Betrayal, is famous as "the one that takes place in reverse." At a California beach house in 1976, we meet Frank (Mark Umbers,) a hugely successful composer of musicals and movie scores. The financial success can't disguise the personal failure though - his second marriage is on the rocks thanks to an affair with the star of his new film (Zizi Strallen - I would say I've now got a full set of Strallen sisters seen on stage, but I've heard there's further models in production) and his wife's going to react in the strongest way to the betrayal.

A quieter breakup, but more important to the story we're about to see, is the final breakdown of relations between Frank and his long-term friend Mary (Jenna Russell,) a mousy, overweight novelist easily forgotten among the Hollywood starlets. But Mary's been a constant support in his life for nearly twenty years together with Charley (Damian Humbley,) his former long-term lyricist, whose relationship with Frank already ended sourly three years earlier.

Marked by the chorus singing the title song, we then get several jumps back in time to see that very public spat with Charley, back through their growing professional success at the gradual expense of their personal lives, and we get to see what the friendship that was destroyed in the opening scene really meant to him when times were more financially tricky; until we finally end in 1957 with their first meeting. Friedman has produced a solid production that hits some, if not all of the emotional notes (I wasn't really emotionally involved in the relationships, although given how often she cried I think Vanessa would disagree.) The central trio are good although I once again wished Jenna Russell had some more big moments; she does unrequited love for Frank well, although her character's shyness sometimes translated into fading into the background under various degrees of not-that-convincing padding (as Mary's weight fluctuates over the years.) Besides, said unrequited love is hard to sympathise with as we keep going back in time and seeing that Frank's unpleasantness started to become apparent fairly early on.

Very good is Josefina Gabrielle in a series of vampish outfits as Frank's icy second wife Gussie - herself the Broadway star who broke up his first marriage to Beth (Clare Foster.) Gussie's own backstory provides some interesting surprises, and it's hard not to think Sondheim and book-writer George Furth are telling us that showbiz success is a corrupting influence. There's a strong supporting cast belting out Sondheim's typically complex score - and this being set in his own day job of musical theatre, a number of digs about producers demanding hummable tunes that Frank and Charley refuse to write for them. (I did leave with the title song stuck in my head, but given that it gets about ten reprises this probably doesn't mean too much.) Soutra Gilmour provides an easily flexible set and a number of memorable costumes that take us effectively through the decades. Merrily We Roll Along is a big, sometimes sad, effective piece of entertainment but it never quite sucked me in.

Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is booking until the 23rd of February at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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