Merrily We Roll Along

Reviewer's Rating

‘Merrily We Roll Along’ represents a crucial hinge in Sondheim’s career between the impeccable series of hits he enjoyed with director Hal Prince and the new directions he explored in the 1980s with James Lapine. And like many hinges in real life its structural importance is often taken for granted. This show explores the story of a group of three friends in reverse, and the loss of innocence and idealism through not knowing what you truly need as opposed to want. It was not a success back in 1981, but through a series of revisions and fresh productions since (mainly in this country) its stock has risen substantially. The score is hugely sophisticated, the dialogue taut and witty, and the psychological insight as penetrating as anything that comes later in the composer’s output.

There is however one problem remaining that needs careful attention. The characters begin the action in their forties and by the end have lost more than twenty years. Do you cast middle-aged actors who have to lose their years or vice versa? The National Youth Music Theatre and director Katherine Hare have made the latter choice, which is surely the correct one here and very much vindicated by the maturity of outlook and delivery the cast find in the material.

We open with a hideous Hollywood party, the location and occasion for the apogee and then downfall of ambitious composer Franklin Shepard. As we move back through the years from 1976 through to the late 1950s we see in a series of seven scenes how Frank made mostly all the wrong choices, betraying the friends who truly loved him, and seeking the company of those who merely aimed to use him. But by the end we are back at the time when he first teamed up with aspiring journalist, Mary Flynn, and emerging playwright, Charley Cringas, when they were ready to ‘open doors’ convinced it was ‘our time’.

Hare and designer Libby Todd have a two-tier set, with a main area that converts locations flexibly with sliding doors behind; while above there is a walkway accessible from stage and backstage areas. Performers enter through the audience as well so that we are never far from the action. There is a supple fluidity that manages the frequent transitions well, and though space is limited Julia Cave’s choreography creates convincing yet never cluttered party scenes that convey a real Manhattan buzz intensified by Aaron Dootson’s moody lighting design. All in all the ambience transmits the allure and also the falsity of the glitzy city in a manner worthy of Kander and Ebb.

The orchestral side of things is quite superb with eleven young instrumentalists all playing with great skill and panache under the direction of Leigh Stanford Thompson. There were some issues of sound balance on press night, especially for those of us sitting at the sides, but I am sure these will have been corrected thereafter.

There were no weak links in the hugely impressive cast who ranged in age from twelve to twenty three, and sang and acted with flair and skill. In the lead role Toby Owers found more self-doubt than usual, which helps to focus the whole show when otherwise the audience can lack empathy with Frank for most of the evening. Thomas Oxley, as the long-suffering Charley, gets the balance right between frustration and loyalty, so that by the end you realise how much he has endured before the final explosion of ‘Franklin Shepard Inc..’ As the first of Frank’s two wives Matilda Shapland is fully to the measure of the demands of the two versions of ‘Not A Day Goes By’ which are the emotional heart of the show, an impact intensified by having the bitter reprise ahead of the penny-plain first outing. Sophie Lagden captures the manipulative, venal glamour of Gussie, but could perhaps make more of the number that opens Act Two. Sam Sayan makes the most of the somewhat thankless role of Gussie’s previous husband, theatre producer Joe; and Matilda Penna sang and acted with precision and plausibility as Frank and Beth’s daughter.

The standout performance of the night, though, was Madeleine Morgan as Mary. Hers is some ways the hardest and longest journey, back from embittered, charmless, cynical, sweary drunk in the first scene through the endlessly self-sacrificing friend and successful writer, before landing up as the starry-eyed, timid girl who falls in love with Frank in the last scene as the final key to explaining her unravelling is revealed. At every stage Morgan is utterly compelling and moving so that your eye gravitates to her whenever she is on the stage. There is a degree of emotional intelligence and perception in her performance that marks her out as an actor to watch in future.

Despite inevitable minor blemishes it is hard to see how young people could do a better job with this show; hence the top rating for a run that is all-too-short.