The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler crosses the pond to check out the acclaimed new production of Merrily We Roll Along that is taking the West End by storm.
There is a throat-catching moment at the end of Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Merrily We Roll Along (currently playing in London’s West End through July 27) where the past meets the present and friendships — which will eventually erupt and dissolve — are born.
This backwards tale of forlorn love, ambition and loyalty by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth has been a problematic piece of musical theater since its original 1981 Broadway production, a notorious flop that only lasted 16 performances. Countless revivals have been staged (New York City Center’s 2012 production received mediocre reviews) but none have been able to capture the simplicity of this beautiful work… until now.
First-time director Maria Friedman, a three-time Olivier award-winning actress for her work in musical theater, has surrounded herself with an impeccable creative team, most important of which is choreographer Tim Jackson, who is able to navigate the cast of 17 throughout complicated transitions of time and place as seamlessly as flipping through a magazine.
Merrily at its core tells the story of three friends, Frank, Charley and Mary, over the course of two decades. The hook is that it begins at the end and the story unfolds backwards, each scene turning back the page toward the night the threesome first bonded on the roof of a New York City apartment building. The original ill-fated production made the mistake of casting 20-somethings who didn’t have the life experience to fully explore the characters’ journeys. Friedman, instead, cast actors approaching middle age. And while you may need to squint to believe their youthfulness in that last scene, the trade-off is well worth it.
At the core is Frank (played by Mark Umbers) a somewhat selfish, conflicted lyricist who bales on his writing partner, Charlie (played by Damian Humbley), in order to pursue fame and money in Hollywood. Trying to keep the peace and secretly deeply in love with Frank, is their foul-mouthed and often inebriated friend, Mary (played by Jenna Russell). Weave in Frank’s second wife Gussie (played by Josefina Gabrielle), and first wife Mary (played by Clare Foster) and you have the ingredients for hot drama and humor that unfolds in snappy, segmented bites that are accented by a versatile ensemble that transforms anew time and again.
Umbers has leading man looks and embodies a captivating selfishness that captures the eye. Humbley, whose Charlie is more understated than usually portrayed, delivers effortless powerhouse vocals and his rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” should be captured on video and delivered to musical theater acting classes across the country as a prime example on how to integrate technique and performance. But it is Russell’s heartbreaking, word-biting, vicious, and ultimately joyful performance as Mary that will tie your heartstrings in knots. While she delivers the zingers with gusto, it is Russell’s poignant unrequited love that — in part — keeps the production rolling along
Merrily is known for some heavy-hitting Sondheim favorites, including “Not a Day Goes By,” sung by Foster with such fervor, intimacy and focus you may feel as if you’re eavesdropping on a therapy session. Such moments of vulnerability, and others of humor, rage and celebration unfold throughout the evening. It is one of those rare evenings of musical theater where you are completely transported in time and place.
While the original production may have floundered, who could have known that the groundwork was laid for this triumphant production? Perhaps Sondheim himself, who wrote in Finishing the Hat “That month of fervent hysterical activity was the most fun that I’ve ever had on a single show. It was what I always expected the theatre to be like.”
Merrily We Roll Along
Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street, London
Want to go behind the scenes? Take the leap for video footage and interviews with the creative team…