At the Menier last November we marvelled merely at Maria Friedman’s directing debut with this poignant, heart-felt and wondrously witty musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, a 1981 re-write of a 1934 drama by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart about friendship, collaboration and idealism at work and play.
How appropriate is the show’s new address for, as in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which pre-dates Merrily by three years, the story is told backwards. We start at the end in 1979 and finish at the beginning, when three great good friends – composer Frank Shepherd and writers Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn - scan the night sky as Sputnik revolves in 1957 and the world changes for ever in the glorious anthem, “Our Time.”
Friedman’s production, with smart designs by Soutra Gilmour and beautiful lighting by the old maestro David Hersey, has definitely improved and ironed out a few bumps; it moves slickly through the various eras either side of a Kennedy-esque Camelot, with minimal scenic brouhaha and a constant musical commentary from Catherine Jayes' ten-piece band in the pit.
The terrific Menier cast, certainly the equal of Michael Grandage’s line-up at the Donmar Warehouse twelve years ago (a show that marked Julian Ovenden’s break-through), is mercifully intact, with Damian Humbley as Charley reprising a scathing attack on Frank’s sell-out in doing (he thinks) his money better than his music; and Jenna Russell as Mary, now curiously and inexplicably pregnant, as the acid-tongued literary critic helplessly stuck on Mark Umbers’ handsomely engaging Frank.
In the middle, there’s a messy divorce involving Josefina Gabrielle’s brilliantly raucous and ruthless Broadway star which leaves Clare Foster’s keenly devoted Beth, a radiant redhead who brims with charm and vitality, as the emotional victim; this process is registered in the show’s musical highlight, a plaintive duet trampled over in an ensemble number of driving, rhythmic invasion.
This is a musical of city lights and private pain, of setting out and taking stock, of making friends and making mistakes, and is as personal and revealing a Sondheim score as any since Company.
Friedman’s ensemble is precisely drilled by choreographer Tim Jackson, but never at the expense of deft contributions in support from Julie Jupp, Zizi Strallen and Glyn Kerslake. The show's an unalloyed treat and a serious pleasure from start to finish.