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Merrily We Roll Along (Susan Elkin reviews)

Merrily We Roll Along
Book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim
society/company: Festival Players
performance date: 07 Jan 2020
venue: The Robinson Theatre, Cambridge CB2 8PE

Merrily We Roll Along is a show I’ve gradually warmed to over the years and it’s certainly in competent hands with the Festival Players and their director, Cat Nicol ably accompanied by an unseen eight-piece band conducted by Musical Director, Ana Sanderson.

Working with a cast of twenty, many of whom are not dancers, choreographer, David Mallabone incorporates a range simple but effective movements to complement Sondheim’s naturalistic, conversational repeats in both music and lyrics – the result is pretty catchy and compelling as we are led to think about the age old conflict between art and money and the nature of friendship.

It starts, of course, with George Firth’s book on which the original play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart was based. Franklin Shepard (Andrew Ruddick) is a highly successful musical theatre composer. His lyricist Charlie Kringas (Matthew Brown) is a lifelong friend. Now everything is beginning to stale. Franklin’s second marriage is on the rocks, He sees too little of his young son (Ted Taras) from his first marriage to Beth (Catriona Clark – lovely work). His embittered oldest friend Mary (Samantha Billing), who has always loved him, has now succumbed to alcoholism.

The plot winds all the way back to 1957 so that we see, in reverse order, how everyone got to this point. The dates are written into the text – reinforced in this production by slides projected onto a backdrop (which also provides ambience for an otherwise very basic set) with instantly recognisable photographs of, for instance, Obama being elected, the Beatles and an anti-Vietnam demo. We always know exactly where we are in the chronology in a piece which ends with hope and excitement and our bittersweet fore-knowledge that much of that will, over the decades, be thwarted,

Ruddick gives a finely nuanced performance as Franklin especially in his “Growing Up” number when he is composing at the piano and in the TV interview scene when he tells an entire story with his facial expressions alone. Brown is deeply convincing and often unexpectedly moving as Charlie especially in the TV interview when he says/sings what he really thinks at top speed and it develops into a bit of a showstopper. Emma Vieceili, a reliably terrific singer, is powerful as the predatory diva, Gussie.

Billing, arguably, has the most interesting part and she really runs with it. Her Mary is miserable, outrageous and almost repugnant in the opening scene because her drunken frankness compromises everyone else’s partying. She does it with total conviction before we scroll back to see how she used to be – eventually a fresh young student on an early morning roof in her nightclothes to watch Sputnik orbit past. Billing gives us a really truthful account of this complex woman whose own success (she writes a best seller) is not enough for her.

Sondheim’s work is always multi-layered and complex – deeply different from “traditional” (populist?) musicals such as The King and I or Jesus Christ Superstar – but productions like this pleasing one make it very rewarding.

 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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