Theatre: Merrily We Roll Along
Hannah Greenstreet enjoyed this polished and thought-provoking musical
by Hannah Greenstreet
Wednesday 9th May 2012, 11:52 BST
Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim, is not your ordinary musical. Exploring shattered idealism and friendship, the cult of celebrity and interrogating the idea of the musical itself, it certainly makes demands upon its actors and audience.
Stamp-Simon’s production generally handles it well. The opening is atmospheric, the ensemble half-lit on the stage, Joey Batey, playing Frank, brooding over the piano. He plays the first few bars of the theme haltingly. The rest of the cast take it up and surround him in a barrage of sound, the vapid words becoming vaguely menacing. What this production excels in is achieving light and shade. After the tragic opening there are moments of real comedy, particularly thanks to Andrew Room, who plays Charlie, and Phil Arathoon, who plays Joe. My particular favourite was the television interview scene, at once hilarious and awful, as Charlie attempts very publically to ruin Frank’s career and satirise his taste for success.
The cast as a whole were strong, in both singing and acting. Ellie Nunn as Mary, the sardonic writer desperately trying to maintain an old friendship, was particularly impressive, as was Sandra Mackenzie as Gussie, the manipulative, flirtatious star actress. The relationship between the three main characters, Frank, Mary and Charlie, was very believable and their gesture of linking little fingers as a sign of their friendship grew to be highly touching as the play progressed.
The choreography by Maria Montague was also impressive and often comic, managing to capture situations ranging from the effusive happiness of having a hit musical to the alarming facelessness of ‘the blob’ of the glitterati. It really gave energy to the performance.
My main issue with the performance was that not enough emotional weight was given to the opening scene, the party during which Frank’s life implodes. This may be a fault with the musical itself: it starts here and works backwards via flashbacks through the events and relationships that have led to this point. Yet I thought the scene could have been made more of considering that the rest of the musical depends upon it for significance; I simply did not believe Frank when he said that his life was over or know the character enough to care. Fortunately, the flashbacks did offer the chance for greater character development and I grew to pity Frank if not actually like him.
The flashbacks also foregrounded the production team’s decision to use minimal set and monochrome costumes. This placed the emphasis on the ensemble, onstage throughout, who were well capable of creating the settings. Yet it also gave a strangely rootless quality to the production and seemed a little bizarre given that specific years were so crucial to the plot, although perhaps it was gesturing at the universality of the play’s concerns.
All in all though, it was a polished and entertaining production. The backwards structure ensures a happy ending, and a big number, but also a disquieting sense that it cannot last. A must-see for those who like their musicals funny and thought provoking.