It took me a while to warm to Maria Friedman’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. At first I didn’t quite get it. I was bemused rather than enthralled, as song after song appeared to fall by the wayside, seemingly surplus to requirements. I remembered reading that when Merrily debuted on the Broadway stage in 1981 it closed after just 16 performances, and I feared that I now understood why. Merrily’s many musical numbers appeared to pause the action, clumsily placed in between dialogue rather than acting as a vehicle to drive the plot forward.
Never have I experienced such a conversion mid-show; the stylised ‘tits and teeth’ so ably performed by the entire ensemble melted my cynicism and I finally understood the meaning, message and method of Merrily. This production is undeniably naff in places, but deliberately so; it revels in its high camp, it is self-empowered by the knowledge that the audience is in on the joke. If this is cheese, then it is a high-quality gorgonzola, epitomised best by numbers such as ‘Old Friends’ in Act I and ‘The Blob’ in Act II.
Merrily is set backwards in time; the action starts in the 1970s, where we meet the embittered composer Frank Shepard, whose penthouse and collection of hangers-on masks his pain and unhappiness at the compromises he has made to his art. Alongside Frank is the grouchy Mary Flynn, now apparently reliant on alcohol, whose razor tongue is still able to burst any pretence of pomp and ceremony. Notable by his absence is Frank’s one-time musical partner, the lyricist Charley Kringas. From this low point, the action retreats to the successes and first signs of trouble in the 1960s, to the early days of idealism and excitement in the late 1950s. The fact that Merrily ends on such a high, with the future looking so bright for the trio, lends the piece a thoroughly tragic undertone, the audience streaming out of the Harold Pinter Theatre leave feeling both nourished and empty at the same time.
With such boisterous energy from the entire cast, it may feel a little mean-spirited to pick out any for particular praise, yet Jenna Russell, who impressed so much during her turn in Soho Cinders at the Soho Theatre last summer, appears in her element as ‘Noo Yoiker’ Mary, effortlessly demanding attention without ever stealing scenes. Mark Umbers as Frank and Josefina Gabrielle as the feisty Broadway star Gussie Carnegie are reunited here after they last shared the stage in the excellent Sweet Charity down the road at the Haymarket a couple of seasons ago. Both provide solidly gutsy performances. Clare Foster is sweet as Frank’s ex-wife Beth, and proves her musical theatre worth with her solo song ‘Not A Day Goes By’.
This is multi-Olivier winning Maria Friedman’s professional directorial debut, which she compares to “one big game of Sudoku… There are so many elements that need to fit together”. Friedman, a good friend of musical theatre royalty Stephen Sondheim, who has provided the music and lyrics, excels in her transfer from on-stage to off; indeed, this could be the start of something very exciting, especially if little sister Sonia remains on-hand as producer.
A final word has to be said about hair and costume: at times garish, with emphasis on mid-60s Op-Art fashion, at times stylish, with sleek lines and fitted jackets, but always witty and laced with meaning. It is clear that Merrily’s talented wardrobe team have had as much fun as the rest of the company.
Behind the greasepaint and choreography (most impressive incidentally, at the opening of Act II), there is a poignancy in Merrily We Roll Along. It says more than it originally lets on. There is a wisdom amongst the silliness. This is where Merrily’s power lies. It took me a while to become immersed into Merrily’s world. But I’m very glad I did.
Merrily We Roll Along is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27 July. For more information and tickets see the Official West End Merrily We Roll Along website. Production image by Tristram Kenton.