Thank you for your patience, gentle reader. If you’ve been hanging around waiting for an account of another theatre trip, I’ve had to spend the last few weeks twiddling thumbs and urging the diary pages to lurch forward. Still, we’ve broken our fast now, and if you’ve got to wait ages for a show to come around, you might as well wait for a good one. And that’s certainly what the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along is. A very very good one.
What’s really hard to believe is that this 1981 Stephen Sondheim classic was such a flop on its first outing. The lyrics and melodies are Sondheim at his toppermost; George Furth’s book is witty, shocking, sad, funny and everything in between; the characters, storyline and structure are gripping. Obviously what 1981 didn’t have was Maria Friedman in charge; someone who has Sondheim written through her like a stick of rock, and who can identify and enhance the sweet and sour within each scene, if that isn’t too many food metaphors for you. Ms Friedman introduced us to the show in the delightful 80th birthday gala for Stephen Sondheim at the Derngate in Northampton we saw two years ago, when the first half of the evening was a concert performance of the songs from Merrily. You knew even then that she was itching to direct it. Well, it’s been worth the wait.
Like Pinter’s Betrayal, that we saw at Sheffield earlier this year, it starts at the end and ends at the beginning (must have been a late 70s, early 80s thing.) This gives a whole new dimension to dramatic irony, so as the show develops you watch out for the clues that created the future out of the past. “How did you get to be here” is the big question that’s continually asked as the whole jigsaw puzzle gets assembled in retrospect. Definitive moments from the three friends’ lives are highlighted, each one a “dangerous corner”, as we go back in time to their first meeting. J B Priestley would have loved it.
The show digs deep into the nature of friendship and loyalty, ambition and expectation, what’s for real and what’s façade, and I for one found it absolutely spellbinding all the way through. Not only do these themes run throughout the show as a whole, you also get visual and musical reminders of them – the interlocking little fingers; the advice to write “from the heart”; the internal rhythms of Charley’s 1973 song “Franklin Shepard Inc” that are proven to be an accurate recollection of their late 1950s Opening Doors scene. These constant little reminders are like individual moments of reward as you appreciate the ebb and flow of the relationships.
Perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Menier, it’s superbly staged – clear, crisp, practical, sensible; no element of the staging has been sacrificed to any directorial whim or “clever idea”, it simply lets the words and music tell their tale, and the occasional spilling out of the action away from the stage only involves the audience even more. One segment of the song “It’s a Hit” was performed so close to where Mrs Chrisparkle and I were sitting that we had to bring our feet and coats in a bit otherwise they would have formed part of the action too. I love it when it gets that close.
It’s not only the quiet, revelatory, personal songs that come across so well, the big numbers are also impressively staged. I loved the whole opening scene in Frank’s Beach House with the company doing “That Frank” – engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully put together – only Mr Ashley Robinson’s microphone was not quite loud enough for his voice to be heard over the music. The scene at Gussie and Joe’s Brownstone in 1962 with all the decadent trendsetters doing “The Blob” was equally entertaining (Mrs C was laughing her head off at it actually). And I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so camp – but absolutely realistic in its context – as Act Two’s opening scene, the finale of “Musical Husbands” involving French tap dancers and Miss Josefina Gabrielle in best vamp mode; quite brilliant.
Jenna Russell is mesmerising as Mary, the aspiring writer who writes one big successful novel but for whom further success dwindles as she relies more and more on alcoholic support. She makes a fantastic old sot of a sourpuss in that opening scene, instantly combining rich comic timing with desperately pathetic sadness. There’s no doubt it’s a superb role – and she really makes the most of it. You follow the sequence of emotions that the character experiences and she tugs at your heartstrings at each event. It’s a wonderful performance.
Mark Umbers, as the hideously successful Frank shows an impressive progress or regression from ambitious purist to selfish sell-out or vice versa, depending on which time structure you’re observing. Mrs C wasn’t over convinced by his characterisation of the very young Frank, finding his youthful innocence a bit girlie and simpering; I know what she means, but I was prepared to forgive it as I was so rapt by the entire show anyway. At least the youthful Frank is a bit different from the older Frank, which cannot really be said for the youthful Mary and Charley. Mr Umbers has a great voice and stage presence and he uses them wisely.
Damian Humbley, a very sharp-toothed Harry in Company at Sheffield last Christmas, takes to the role of Charley like the proverbial duck to water, with his opening scene including the show-stopping “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, a bitter slice of savage Sondheim from which Charley and Frank’s friendship cannot recover. Mr Humbley does it brilliantly. His verbal dexterity throughout the whole show is remarkable – I loved his contributions to the Bobbie and Jackie and Jack routine when they’re doing their revue as youngsters.
Josefina Gabrielle is terrifically well cast as the manipulative star Gussie, and her singing and dancing is superb as always. She throws herself into the part with huge gusto and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Her drifting away from husband Joe towards Frank, and Frank’s subsequent rejection of her is all rivetingly well expressed. In a relatively unglamorous role, Glyn Kerslake as Joe does a wonderful progression/deterioration from all-powerful producer to toothless cuckold and it’s an amazingly good portrayal of how influence wanes (or grows, depending on your time perspective).
But all the cast are terrific. It’s a tremendous ensemble – and although the rest of the cast join the applause for the three leading performers at curtain call, each and everyone gives their all and is equally important to the success of the show. Clare Foster as Beth, for example, Frank’s first wife, is stunning as an emotional wreck the first time we see her, and as their earlier days together are revealed, you understand how she’s never going to recover from the shock of the marriage breakdown. Superb support from the likes of Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan, Amy Ellen Richardson and Kirk Patterson too, whose appearance as the Reverend is one of the funniest retorts against racism I’ve ever seen on stage. Big up to young Noah Miller who played Frank Jnr on the performance we saw – super singing and word perfect, his use as a pawn in his parents’ warring brought a lump to your throat.
Just two more observations – what a great band! They’re stuck in what looks like a converted garage office at the side of the stage but they can’t half wallop out a show tune. And congratulations to whoever it was that went out and bought all the coats that get used in the course of the show. Some of them were exquisite. I felt like scouring Ebay for similar items as soon as I got home. Wasn’t quite so convinced by all the white socks, however.
All in all a wonderful production of a sensational show; it was one of those occasions that reminded me exactly why I love the theatre. It’s already got a two-week extension at the Menier tagged on to what would otherwise have been the end of its run – but surely this is not going to be the last we see of this. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.