“Listen… Yes! That’s the sound of a hit! It’s a hit!” In the original 1981 production of Merrily We Roll Along, these Sondheim lyrics must have echoed hollowly on Broadway as it opened to harsh reviews, quickly becoming one of Sondheim’s most notorious flops. Throughout tonight’s revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory, however, the theatre was buzzing with the same thrill and excitement as Franklin and Charley in this upbeat number. It’s a hit. In her directorial debut, singer and actress Maria Friedman has managed to truly revive this challenging piece. The show was received with many tears and a hearty, sustained standing ovation — an astounding transformation for a musical that has long been written off by many critics, theatregoers, and even some loyal Sondheim fans.
Merrily We Roll Along’s structure is unusual: the opening scene is set in 1976, and the story goes slowly back in in time as we piece together the significant moments in Franklin Shepard’s life that lead him to become the miserable man we first meet. We witness crumbling friendships, adultery, divorce, unrequited love, and the youthful optimism that tragically precedes it all. George Furth’s book is smart, witty and touching, while remaining loyal to the structure of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play, on which the musical is based. The non-linear story doesn’t come off as remotely problematic, and instead packs an emotional punch as we fall in love with the characters while already knowing their unhappy fate.
It is essential to the musical that the audience care about the central characters, and this is beautifully achieved through many stellar performances under Friedman’s direction. Mark Umbers faces a particular challenge in the role of Franklin, who, despite being the leading man, is the least likeable character. But Umbers’ sincere portrayal emphasises some of Franklin’s more kind and sensitive qualities, leaving us feeling more upset with his mistakes than angry at them. Jenna Russell is sensational as Mary, Franklin’s “old friend” who has always secretly dreamed of sharing something more. Damian Humbley is genuine and earnest as Charley, and his explosive rendition of ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc.’ was a highlight of the show. The cast doesn’t have a single weak link, and every performance brings the complex characters to life beautifully.
Soutra Gilmour’s set design is attractive and sleek, and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration sounds wonderful played by nine talented musicians. Everything about the production looks and sounds simply top-notch. Maria Friedman, with an exceptional cast and the rest of the production team, has brought a flop to life, and this superb production of Merrily We Roll Along is an absolute must-see.
Merrily We Roll Along is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 23 February 2013. For tickets and more information, visit the Menier Chocolate Factory website.