Review Round-up: Critics Roll Along to MenierDate: 29 November 2012
Based on the play by Kaufman and Hart, Sondheim and George Furth's musical charts the turbulent relationship between three friends, Franklin, Charley and Mary, over three decades. Starting in 1980 and travelling backwards in time, it features songs including "Good Thing Going", "Not a Day Goes By" and "Old Friends".
This is a lovely directing debut by Maria Friedman, a full-value, beautifully cast, moving and assured production of Stephen Sondheim's and George Furth’s poignant 1981 musical…about friendship, collaboration and trading your idealism for the easy material life. The story is told backwards, so that we start at the end and finish at the beginning. Friedman and designer Soutra Gilmour do the much harder thing of moving backwards with the times in fashion and furniture. They manage this without making everything look clumsy and laboured. The show is given a classy sheen by David Hersey's first London lighting in ages and by Jason Carr’s new dance arrangements. The cast is just fine and dandy, with Joanna Woodward and Zizi Strallen chipping in effectively with Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan as Beth's adamantly unimpressed parents from Texas.
Maria Friedman... is making her professional debut as a director with Merrily We Roll Along. It's a superbly assured production. She sharply captures the show’s wit but also discovers its undertow of sadness and loss.If the musical has a fault it is that it sometimes seems a little too neat and schematic. But as a piece of craftsmanship Merrily We Roll Along dazzle. The score ranges from the touchingly emotional to the brilliantly comic. And Soutra Gilmour’s sleek designs neatly capture changing times and fashions. Mark Umbers has the trickiest task as the main character Franklin Shepard, a composer turned Hollywood hotshot who betrays his friends…Umbers plays him with such charm and swagger that you can see why his friends stay so loyal for so long. Jenna Russell is deeply touching…and Damian Humbley gives a deliciously geeky performance.
A superb production by Maria Friedman, astonishingly making her directorial debut, that makes you wonder how anyone could ever have doubted its quality. It's... the backward momentum that makes the story so moving: the show builds towards a surge of youthful optimism... that we know will not be sustained. Sondheim's score is also a miracle of construction: motifs, phrases and even non-musical sounds echo through the evening. What I love about this show is that Sondheim's technical brilliance is harnessed to emotional needs; and that is the point on which Friedman has avidly seized. Instead of fretting about the characters' reverse-ageing, she focuses on the detail of their relationships. Thanks to the anguished integrity of Damian Humbley's Charley, and the frayed longing of Jenna Russell's Mary, you also believe totally in the slowly dissolving friendship between the three principals.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has now become London’s leading home for both refining and redefining Sondheim musicals. Merrily We Roll Along has… always been considered a problem show. But now Maria Friedman... makes a startlingly good directorial debut with a show she clearly knows inside out. She doesn’t so much solve the show’s problems as embrace them. Played in the original Broadway production by actors in their early 20s... the central trio of Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell are older, which amplifies the show’s rueful sense of the wrong turns... and collapsed dreams. Atmospherically coloured with precise, mood-shifting designs (Soutra Gilmour), tight Fosse-esque period choreography (Tim Jackson) and terrific musical direction (Catherine Jayes), this is a production of crushing beauty about crushed lives that paradoxically offers an exhilarating reclamation of a one-time flop. Could the next stop be Broadway?
Merrily We Roll Along revolves around the tussle between commercialism and loftier aspirations. Franklin is the central character. He is unsympathetic, and there's no getting round the fact. But Mark Umbers makes him interesting, even at his most arrogant and aloof. Expressive tenor Damian Humbley is a tender Charley, and Jenna Russell’s Mary oozes pathos. Poised support comes from Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle. Maria Friedman… makes a first-rate professional debut as a director. She locates the work’s emotional and musical heart. A nine-piece band under Catherine Jayes does justice to the layered score, and Soutra Gilmour has created a versatile, effective design. Crucially, there is rousing emotion in the songs…Sondheim’s music and lyrics have a gut-wrenching poignancy as well as elegance and subtle colour, and at its best this production soars.
We see the euphoria of the pair's hit musical, and a marvellous turn from Josefina Gabrielle as the gushy, sharp-clawed, rising star Gussie. We see how the celebrity "blob" alarms Charley (a gentle, heartfelt performance from Damian Humbley), as Frank is seduced towards "fast, loud and funny" and forgets their mission to make truthful musicals with meaning. We see their first club revue, gaily spoofing the Kennedys, then move back to end with the three broke young friends watching Sputnik rise in 1957, dreaming of the future; "It's our time, breathe it in! Worlds to change and worlds to win..." We gulp, because we have seen how life will shrivel them all. And dammit, for all the perverse structure and lack of bum-di-bum-di-dee, the old wizard Sondheim has done it to me again.