Review: Merrily We Roll Along
Sondheim dipped in Chocolate...
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Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, the tale of a writer-composer duo, told backwards from the demise of their collaboration in the 1970s to their youthful optimism in the 50s, has always been a difficult piece, with a much-documented troubled birth. At root, it's a beautiful score, trapped in a pretty dreadful book. The convention of going backwards in time, while making the music blossom (or more accurately, degenerate), makes the story swing from unrelentingly grim to saw-your-leg-off saccharine, and creates characters impossible to warm to.
This production, the directorial debut of legendary musical actress and Friend of Sondheim, Maria Friedman, does little. The ensemble sequences are tightly choreographed, entertaining and worth the ticket price alone (especially The Blob), and the singing is generally excellent, but the more intimate scenes are oddly directed. Watching two characters have an apocalyptic row while seated so close together that their knees are touching is just plain strange. Other sequences are deftly more done, like the Damien Humbley’s tightly wound delivery of the epic Franklin Shepard Inc. and Clare Foster’s heart-rending performance as Beth, an innocent in this terrible world.
But in a play that doesn't let the audience in very easily, I found it impossible to care at all about many of the characters at all. The one major exception is, unsurprisingly, Jenna Russell as the lovelorn and eventually alcoholic Mary. Her performance finally made Mary make sense for me, a slightly lumpen girl, good at writing, emotionally vulnerable, and elevates the role to the pantheon of other great Sondheim female characters.
Despite lavish attention being paid to subtly shifting period costume, the set was at best a blank canvas and at worst looked cheap - not least the logo for the duo's Broadway smash that came straight out of PowerPoint. It's certainly not the visual standard expected of other such Menier Chocolate Factory West End transfers (Sunday in the Park with George anyone?)
It's not a bad production, just an unexciting one, with little new to say. Combine this with a flawed book full of unhappiness and where youthful optimism dies hard, and you find a difficult production to love. One for Merrily fans only.
Menier Chocolate Factory, 35 Southwark Street, SE1 1RY
GT gives this a 3/5
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Words: Milo Ives