Amid the flying witches, magical schoolgirls and Africa-bound Mormons of the West End, this grown-up Sondheim musical proves a rare, real-life treat. Despite its upbeat title, Merrily We Roll Along deals with the disillusion, flawed friends and tricky relationships that make up the complexities of life. Its hard to believe that Merrily... was initially a flop when it opened in 1981; this revival by first-time director (but long-time Sondheimist) Maria Friedman really brings all the tasty acidity and wonderful sugar out of this bittersweet show.
Rather than being a melancholy spiral into middle age, broken marriages and failing friendships, the genius of Merrily We Roll Along lies in its reverse chronology. Opening in 1976 at a vacuous, hedonistic Hollywood party, we see the relationship between three friends, Mary, Franklin and Charley played backwards. The show finishes on a New York rooftop in 1957 where the threesome first meet, full of the near-unbearable optimism of the possibilities of youth.
While this could be seen as a too clever-clever Sondheim trick, instead the reverse structure works brilliantly, heightening emotion and gently revealing past truths lost in too-strong present feelings. It peels back the layers of the story, revealing, onion-like, sharper, newer, rawer flesh underneath. So, only in the final scene do we see the encouraging smile that had Mary falling for Frank all those years ago. And, having heard the bitter Not A Day Goes By spat outside a divorce court by Frank’s first wife, it’s stabbingly painful to hear the refrain sung again, seven years earlier, as a love song on her wedding day.
The excellent ensemble is matched by some thrilling leads. Jenna Russell is heartbreaking as Mary, once intoxicated by life’s possibilities; later just inebriated with disappointment and drink. The super-skilled Damian Humbley brings laughs as well as a hinted desperation to playwright Charley (and amazingly effortless vocals). And the gorgeous Mark Umbers manages to imbue the sometimes unsympathetic Franklin with a charming charisma and subtle touch of weakness. In a key 1968 scene in Frank’s New York apartment, Russell and Humbley suggest it's the friends’ well-meaning but suffocating idealism that’s as much at fault as Frank’s own desire for praise and success that leads to his affair with Josefina Gabrielle’s chameleon-like Broadway diva Gussie.
There are real sparks of genius about this show. Anyone who’s ever looked from what appears to be an incomprehensible Facebook update from a once-close old friend, and wondered “How did I get here?” should see this thrilling, thoughtful show.
Merrily We Roll Along runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street, St James, London, SW1Y 4DN until 27 July. Tickets from £10 to £59.50. Visit merrilywestend.com to find out more. Londonist saw this show on a review ticket.