In case you don’t already know: I love Sondheim! In my opinion his shows are nothing but amazing and no other composer comes close to what he does with words and music. So there was no question I would have to go and see Merrily we roll along at Menier Chocolate Factory. This was yet another Sondheim I hadn’t seen on stage so far and I knew very little about the show when I sat down inside the auditorium.
The staging is very basic and in my eyes works perfectly. Sondheim shows generally don’t need huge sets – they have the clever lyrics and well-defined characters to draw the audience into the story.
Merrily we roll along tells the story of former Broadway composer Franklin Shepard who has moved on to become a successful producer in Hollywood. The story starts in 1976 and moves backwards highlighting important moments in Frank’s life showing how he has become the man he is today – abandoned by his friends and deeply unhappy with his life despite his success in Hollywood. If told in the common order this story would be sad and pretty predictable. However, telling it backwards is what makes this story so moving and slightly disturbing. At the end of the show we see the three main characters on a New York rooftop watching the Sputnik – a picture full of optimism and hope. But we already know this friendship will not last and that optimism will be replaced by bitterness.
Mark Umbers’ Franklin Shepard is charismatic and intriguing despite being a rather unlikable character. It is easy to understand why people fall for this charming man. And it is down to Mark’s portrayal that Frank doesn’t come across as being someone who drops his friends viciously but someone who is simply too easily turned by all the bright things that cross his path.
However, the star of the show is without a doubt Damian Humbley who plays Frank’s former partner (and former best friend) Charley Kringas. Damian’s comic timing and the pure passion he puts into his performance are what truly stands out in this show. His “Franklin Shepard, Inc” is a (if not the) highlight of the show and left me completely in awe.
Jenna Russel’s Mary Flynn is a cynic through and through. At the beginning of the show it is hard to understand why Frank and Charlie call her a close friend but in the end we get to see who Mary was and why she has become the bitter self-destructive woman she is now. It is quite heartbreaking to see how she is eaten up by unrequited love and how long she has held on to the friendship between her, Charley and Frank.
Special mention for Josefina Gabrielle as Frank’s wife (and Broadway star) Gussie Carnegie and Clare Foster as Frank’s ex-wife Beth who both deliver flawless performances. There really is no weak link in this cast though the main focus remains on the three leads.
Menier Chocolate Factory once again proves that it is the number one fringe venue in London. With yet another show of the highest standard and a stellar cast this show is bound to be a hit. I urge all of you to get a ticket while they are still available. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this wonderful show. I left the theatre humming the title song and being completely blown away by the amount of talent I had witnessed on stage.
Merrily we roll along is playing at Menier Chocolate Factory until 23rd February 2013. For more info and to book tickets go to http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com.