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Merrily We Roll Along

by on 9 June 2022

Back Story

Merrily We Roll Along

by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, based on a play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart

BROS Theatre Company at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 11th June

Review by Mark Aspen

“How did you get to be here?”   We could all probably ask ourselves that, as we look back on our lives.  Maybe we are not where we thought we could be.

This is exactly the presupposition of Sondheim’s 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along, which looks back on the lives of three friends over two decades, from the mid-seventies back to the mid-fifties, and examines what went wrong over that time.  The reverse chronology emphases the poignancy of how ambition spoilt the life of one of their number, Franklin Shepard, a successful composer song-writer who is seduced away from his true talent, and along the way from his true friends, to become a Hollywood film producer.  “How did you get to be here?” asks the opening chorus number, and hints at the answer, by “practising dreams”. 

If BROS’ production is an homage to the late Stephen Sondheim, who died last November, then it more than succeeds as a flawless triumphant tribute to one of the most innovative, and most intricate, of modern musical composers.

Patrick Troughton’s set design is stylishly and strikingly simple.  The confining rails of a roof terrace are silhouetted against a strongly lit cyclorama, a key element of Ed Padgett’s inspired lighting design.    The rooftop setting is significant, as Franklin wants to be on top; the only way is up … until you get there.   The rooftop is the blank canvas for nine scenes in different places and times.  There are seventeen characters and each seems to have a different costume per scene, but even if it isn’t quite 153 costumes, Zoe Harvey-Lee certainly has her work cut out.  Her costume designs though are cleverly conceived, each scene having its own colour signature.  California 1976 is silver and pink; NBC studio 1973 is brown; Franklin’s New York apartment 1968 magenta; Manhattan courthouse 1967 lime green; then Gussie and Joe’s townhouse 1962 is turquoise; The Downtown Club 1960 yellow; and so on.  The colour signature is picked up by the lighting, and all the designers produce a coherent integral whole.  

The trio of friends comprise Franklin, his sometime lyricist Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn, a journalist and author who becomes one of those, er, dreaded theatre critics.  They have known each other for twenty years and even have their own Old Friends mantra: “Here’s to us.  Who’s like us?  Damned few!”

The story mainly revolves around Franklin Shepard, a man who becomes corrupted by his own ambition, and by two infatuations, an infatuation with the tinsel cult of celebrity, and an infatuation with stage and screen star Gussie Carnegie, the wife, previously secretary, of impresario Joe Josephson.  Michael Stacey plays Franklin as a man swept along by his own vanity.  We first see him throwing a party for Californian celebrity “A-listers”, who sing a paean to him, That Frank.  Stacey shows us the weakness, even vulnerability, of a man who totally lacks self-awareness.  He can’t see where his own talents lie, namely in composing, and instead follows flatterers who are using him.  Worst of all, he can’t see his blessings, notably his loving wife Beth.  Tellingly, Franklin doesn’t get a solo number and Stacey is at his singing best in reflexive numbers such as Not a Day Goes By when sung in reprise with two of the (several) women in his life, Beth and Mary.

Charley Kringas is far more sensibly grounded, but doesn’t have Franklin’s clout.  Charley can see there is more to life than spurious money and fleeting fame.  He is happily married to Evelyn, whom we hardly see.  Guillaume Borkhataria is an outstanding (if somewhat hirsute) Charley, who acts the agitated frustrations of his character to a tee.  Vocally, Sondheim gives the singer of Charley a pretty hard time, but Borkhataria more than copes.  In case in point is his patter-song, Franklin Shepard Inc, which includes musical riffs and actions within the patter.  This is Charley’s rant in a television interview.  Just as it starts, live on air, the host has let slip the news that Franklin has signed a three-picture film deal, without Charley. Anger is an understandable reaction, but as the interview is rapidly drawn to a close, Charley has publically humiliated Franklin, whose pride kicks in with a vengeance.   Their friendship is finished.

Mary Flynn suffers the same fate in the first scene, chronologically the last, at the celebrity Californian party at Franklin’s swish Bel Air mansion.  Mary has become increasing drunk, and increasingly annoyed at the vacuousness of Franklin’s guests.  Eventually it all boils over in an inebriated toast to the host and a denunciation of the guests, “You are all trash!!”  Their friendship too is finished.  Acting drunk is difficulty to do convincingly.  Getting drunk backwards in time (so to speak) is even harder, for Mary clearly becomes more and more an entrenched alcoholic as time goes by, in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky girl we first (last) see twenty years earlier.  Heidi Delve pulls this transition off brilliantly, hard cynicism from trusting innocence.  She also has a sharp line in cutting put-downs of the shallow “celebrities”.  Delve has a bright and well-modulated singing voice, witness her solo Like It Was, when Mary wistfully wonders what has happened to the trio’s friendship, following Charley’s remorse after his televised outburst.

Franklin’s loyal wife Beth is played with great tenderness by Ellie McWilliam.  Particularly poignant is the scene in 1964 outside the New York divorce court where the custody of their son, Frank Jnr, is being disputed.  Beth’s protestation that she still loves him, in Not a Day Goes By, is touchingly and gently expressed in McWilliam’s soft singing voice. 

Joe Josephson also has a long journey of fate, to improvised ex-husband begging money from Gussie, all the way from a wealthy and successful musical impresario.  Nick Moorhead characterises this decline with acuity, and gets some lively singing opportunities.   It’s a Hit, at the top of his success, has huge gusto.  Joe makes a point about the commerciality of musicals; he wants more “hummable” tunes, “fast, loud, and funny” (Sondheim poking fun at his fellow musical composers … or at himself?).

The role of the man-eating Gussie Carnegie is one to die for, and Rachael Williams takes it by the throat.  Gussie’s motto is “Life is taking what you want”.  In spite of all her bitchiness, manipulations and sheer amorality, she is the only character to come through unscathed. Come-uppance passes her by.  Williams’ powerful jazz mezzo is seen at its powerful best in the Act 2 opening, performing on the first night of the show-within-the-show, as the star of Musical Husbands.  It has pizzazz!

The high standard supporting cast are all very watchable, for example Marc Batten’s flurry of versatile roles from convivial to disapproving, Tracy Sorgiovanni’s pragmatic newscaster, and Juliet Manners’ cameo appearance as Evelyn, shocked to see her room-mate Beth, alone with … boys.  A special mention must be made of twelve-year old Joseph Kirwan’s accurate portrayal of the fought-over Frank Jnr.

Stephen Sondheim’s music is by no means simple, but musical director Artemis Reid and his nine-strong band seem to have it under their skin.  The complexities and the full-on energy of the score are tackled with consummate ease.  Hidden within the depths of the set, we only see the band once, as part of the show-within-the-show.  Equally demanding is the choreography, which is executed with precision by choreographer Emma Knight.  And those cast members certainly know how to dance.    Bobby and Jackie and Jack, Charley, Beth and Franklin’s youthful song and dance number (about the Kennedy clan) is one of many impressive set pieces. 

Director Paul Turnbull’s Merrily We Roll Along is an integral piece, meticulously constructed with not a step or note discernibly out of place, and a fitting tribute to Stephen Sondheim.  It plots two opposing trajectories, the upward curve of ambition against the disintegrating locus of friendship.  It offers a nostalgic view of what-might-have-been, “practising dreams”. 

At the beginning of their story the young friends are hopeful of changing the world.   They don’t … we don’t … but the world rolls along merrily.

Mark Aspen, June 2022

Photography by JoJo Leppink, Handwritten Photography

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