“We go way back, never forward”
Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along famously flopped on Broadway when it opened in 1981 but now refined and reappraised, it is considered amongst his finest work and this Menier Chocolate Factory production serves to bolster that reputation. Directed by Maria Friedman, no stranger to Sondheim’s work as an actor but making her professional directorial debut here, the story traces the fortunes of Franklin, Mary and Charley, three writer friends buzzing with creative energy and determined to make their mark on the world. Real life intervenes though and the mistakes, sacrifices and compromises made in their lives as success changes them in unexpected ways are highlighted and heightened by a reverse timeline which sees Sondheim and book writer George Furth move scene by scene from 1976 to 1957.
It is Franklin who lies at the heart of the story. An unsympathetic figure who we meet as the height of his unlikeability in the midst of a soulless Hollywood party, it is to Mark Umbers’ immense credit that he makes this man such an intriguing person, transcending the limitations of the book which provides little clue as to his motivations. Umbers’ Franklin sparkles with a seductively easy charm that makes him understandably hard to resist and suggests that it not with malice that he rides roughshod over others, but rather that his head is simply too easily turned by the next new bright thing. Jenna Russell’s Mary’s slow self-destruction as unrequited love eats her from the inside is just devastating to watch, all the more so for being played in reverse and realising just how long she has held a flame for her friend, and Damian Humbley’s well-judged Charley has a geeky reticence that explodes in fine style with a delicious rip through ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc’.
But though the focus is frequently on this main threesome, there’s another trio of supporting performances around them that really elevate the production into something spectacular. Josefina Gabrielle is simply exceptional as the vivacious Broadway diva Gussie who we see insinuating her way ever further into Frank’s life and given the allure and showmanship she exudes, who can blame him for succumbing. Glyn Kerslake brings a stirring energy as her hapless husband and theatre producer and Clare Foster astounds as Frank’s first wife Beth, indeed it is her journey from bitter heartbreak (her rendition of ‘Not A Day Goes By’ is replete with exquisitely raw pain) to bright-eyed ingénue that is most affecting in the show as she is mercilessly swept up into the turmoil caused by others.
At 2 hours 40 minutes, it stretches out perhaps a little too languorously though, especially in its second half which slightly overdoes the structural formality of its reprises and transitions at the expense of character depth, the introduction of Franklin’s young son felt unnecessary and the larger choreographed ensemble numbers somehow seem a little incongruous too. But ultimately, complaints are few and far between as Friedman marshals one of the finest set of musical actors one could hope to see and altogether they manage the not inconsiderable feat of making the fates of this oft-times unlikeable group of people utterly gripping and near-unbearably poignant.