Following its sell-out run at the hit-making Menier Chocolate Factory, a very sophisticated musical has arrived in the West End along with its original stellar cast.
Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley lead the company of Merrily We Roll Along, Maria Friedman’s directorial debut, which proves that less really can mean more. With minimal set and not a jazz hand in sight – although the superb mid-20th century costumes feel expensively authentic – Stephen Sondheim’s show is a moving, witty and skilful piece which requires the cast to deliver nothing less than flawless performances.
Opening at a flash Hollywood party, it’s hard to fathom just how the suave and tanned Frank Shepard is connected to dowdy, cantankerous Mary whose brain seemingly boasts an IQ higher than all the floozies and fakes flocking around the great composer Frank combined, requiring a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other at all times.
But this is where Sondheim’s story told backwards is so clever; each scene peels back another layer of the past as we travel through three friends’ history to discover how success has brought them to this vacant Hollywood end. Once criticised for its complexity, in Friedman’s capable hands the story unfolds with ease like a camera coming slowly into focus, and from flamboyant parties to basement theatres, grand pianos to second hand uprights, youthful optimism to cynical doubt, Sondheim’s story is a poignant and endearing tale of three connected lives.
From the very beginning – or end, depending on how you choose to look at it – Mary is the true New Yorker. Summed up perfectly with her line “I tell everything then go home and suffer”, she is blunt and hilarious, independent and bright, but also hopelessly in love with Frank. From the object of her affection’s sensitive beginnings to his manipulative end, it seems likely this is no secret passion, but with a host of other women flitting through his life – from the fabulously dramatic Gussy Carnegie to his long-suffering wife Beth – Mary is destined to always look on from the outside.
While this might be a lonely place, she frequently finds company from Frank’s collaborator, lyricist Charley who finds himself increasingly pushed out of their duo as the promise of commercial success is dangled tantalisingly under Frank’s ambitious nose, while making art still remains the attractive draw for the homely Charley.
It is Frank who we see change most over the years, from shyly attending parties anxious about the smell of pot to sniffing cocaine at an A-List soiree while holding court. As the play unfolds, Umbers transforms from scene to scene, optimism and dreams bubbling to the surface as he is led back to his idealist roots while Mary and Charley look on.
While the three leading performances are undoubtedly brilliant, the musical is truly an ensemble piece with Sondheim’s score taking flight when the complicated company numbers are executed beautifully by Friedman’s cast, and the engaging Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle both steal scenes as Frank’s two very different loves.
Funny and heartbreaking in equal measures, Merrily We Roll Along is a warm, understated treat, which leaves you with a long-lasting affection for the three dreamers and a yearning for a time when anything felt possible.