Off West End/London Fringe

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory by Scott Matthewman

Editor’s Rating
Rating

And so, I decided to write this review backwards, starting at the end of the night and finishing at the beginning. How hard could it be?

Are people just going wild for this because it’s Sondheim? Because it’s a Menier production? Can the West End transfer possibly be a success for a show that, if scenes were run in chronological order, would be seen as a rather workaday piece?

But the main problem with Merrily We Roll Along is that its time reversal doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s all very well asking “how did we get here?” – but if we end the night knowing just as much as when we started, you can’t help but feel disappointed.

What you end up taking away from Merrily is Jenna Russell’s performance as Mary, the woman whose unrequited love turns her into a hilariously drunken lush by the start of the play. It’s one of the standout performances, along with that of Josefina Gabrielle as the social climber and Broadway chanteuse who is revealed to have humbler origins.

Sondheim stalwart Maria Friedman, here moving to the director’s chair, brings an assured hand to proceedings. Every comedic punchline is hit, every wink to Broadway and Hollywood cliché is all knowing.

The second act is also where Clare Foster really comes into her own, as Shepard’s supportive first wife in the days before the lure of fame led him astray from his dreams and her life. Her introduction at the end of the first act as an embittered divorcée is a tough one to pull off, but she manages it – and as we follow her journey back to happier times, she lights up the stage.

“You need a hummable melody,” Shepard is told in the second act – to knowing laughs in the audience. Mainly from us.

During the interval, my friend and I discussed how the show isn’t one of Sondheim’s best, no matter how beautiful the score. What annoys us, we agree, is no matter how much you love the music, there’s no standout melody to any of them.

(Maybe I need a haircut.)

As the show’s consistent moral compass, Damian Humbley – who I first met at a party while he was in The Woman in White, and have since seen onstage in a number of guises, including Max in the short-lived but very good Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical – is transformed here: not the handsome leading man that he projects offstage and (usually) on, but a likeable supporting nerd whose bouffant hair disguises his otherwise rugged charms.

Mark Umbers looks, sings and dances the part as Franklin Shepard, the composer whose path we first see ending up a long way from where it was originally planned. I’ve always found Umbers a little too clinical and clean-cut for my tastes: I always get a feeling that I’ve watched a technically accomplished performance, but not one that I could connect to emotionally. Nothing changes here: Shepard is likeable enough, but it’s the worlds that revolve around him that capture the real attention.

Played in the correct order, the musical would be a fun, but straightforward treatise on how composers should eschew commercial work in favour of having faith in the artistic merits of their own work. So it feels like the temporal structure is in place not to add anything, but instead to disguise an emptiness.

To a certain extent, my fears played out.

I’d never seen Merrily We Roll Along on stage before, although I’ve been to so many Stephen Sondheim revues that most of the songs sound familiar. What could a reverse narrative bring to a musical about three friends?

Reverse-order narrative is a tough technique to get right, but I’ve always felt that it needs to have a payoff. If a comedian starts with the punchline, you need him to take you somewhere else in the follow-up, just as magicians Penn and Teller can start a routine explaining how a trick works, only to fool you into watching a completely different illusion. Writer Jonathan Harvey’s new project, Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy, written for young people and being performed via the NT Connections scheme, uses a similar technique to look at the after-effects of a homophobic hate crime. As the play progresses, we are drawn closer and closer to cataclysm. That’s how it should be done.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hS3Cfavpk_g

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory3Scott Matthewman2013-03-06 15:29:17Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse – and so is this review

Story written by Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now lead developer for evvnt.com, critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Public Reviews and others.

@scottm

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  1. It is startling to think that someone who goes to the theatre so often can not see the remarkable achievement the reverse story telling creates in Merrily – never more so than in this production at the Menier.

    By starting at the end, when all the damage has been done, the audience gets the rare opportunity to see lives unravel, knowing what the end position is. This makes so many points along the way have a much greater significance than they would otherwise have. It also ensures the ebullient optimistic sections in Act Two are riddled with heartbreak – it is one thing to watch happiness and then discover later that it ends in disaster. It is quite another to watch happiness knowing that it will and how it will end. Opening Doors and Our Time have much more power and dislocate your spirit precisely because you know, while revelling in the optimism and joy of the real, true friendship, that it has gone horribly wrong. In Act One, when Umbers, Russell and Humbley sing the trio version of Old Friends, exuding happiness, even through their fighting, it is devastating because you know – absolutely – that what they believe will not come true.

    Umbers is quite miraculous as Frank. He is neither clinical nor clean-cut – ridiculous words to describe a man capable of the multi-role demands he took on to great effect (and acclaim) in Sweet Charity and the triumph he made of the almost unplayable part of the teacher who sleeps with Crocker-Harris’ wife and then comes to despise her and admire him in The Browning Version – he shone in both of those recent productions. Here, he is miraculous: never before has there been a Frank about whom it was possible to feel sympathy. Even Ben Brantley in The New York Times saw the special achievement of Umbers here. You say he is “likeable enough” – no Frank before him has been.

    The temporal structure is there for many reasons – but disguising emptiness is not one of them. The piece is not really about creative forces eschewing commercialism – it is about friendship, in precisely the same way that Company is about relationships. This production is the first to really get to grips with that and the way it tells the stories of the four key characters – Frank, Mary, Charley and Gussie – revolves around their mutual love and admiration. Very cleverly and carefully you see why each character ends up where they end up – and why and who is to blame. It is a revelation to discover, as you do at the very end of the play, that Frank was the idealist who sold the notion of creating musical theatre to send a real message to the masses to Charley, rather than the other way around. It is a visceral shock, and Umbers makes it work effortlessly. Just as Russell makes clear Mary’s resistance to the entrance of other women in Frank’s life – first Beth, who she eventually warms to, and then Gussie, who she always despises. And Humbley shows clearly that Charley sells out before Frank, which has consequences. And Gabrielle is perfect at showing the evolution of Gussie and her issues with Charley (who ignores her when he first meets her as the drab secretary remade as Gussie, Broadway star) and Mary (who refuses her offer of friendship from the very start).

    These are complex, real friendships – and the reverse order allows aspects of them to be highlighted and understood in ways that an ordinary linear telling could not achieve. You know much more about the characters and why they are who they are at the end of the play than at the beginning.

    And one glorious thing that Friedman does, again to emphasise the value of the reverse order, is to have that final moment of Umbers smiling, deciding to try to reclaim what he had.

    This musical is an extraordinary work – and it has taken this production and this cast – led by Umbers, without whom it simply could not work, – to make that perfectly clear.

    And the melodies in Old Friends, Our Time, Good Thing Going, Growing up, Not a Day Goes By and the title number are as good as anything in, say, Rent, Wicked, Pippin, Next to Normal or In the Heights.

    The joke about the advice given to Frank about hummable tunes is ironic. Anything can be hummable, as Sondheim shows clearly in that number, but that does not make it a good song or good music.

    See it again. Go with a friend you value. Watch the characters break apart and then glow and grow together. Everyone alive knows at least one or more of Mary, Charley, Frank and Gussie or is one.

    It is a triumph – and Umbers is central to it.

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