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Merrily We Roll Along (Susan Elkin reviews)

Merrily We Roll Along
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth
society/company: Artform
performance date: 13 Oct 2019
venue: Broadway Studio Theatre SE6 4RU SE6 4RU

Sondheim in general – and this show in particular – is always a good choice for an amateur company because there is essentially no such thing as an ensemble part. Played on this occasion by an accomplished cast of fourteen, Merrily We Roll Along gives them all integral roles with plenty to do and lots of solo lines and contributions.

Merrily We Roll Along, which dates from 1984, famously tells the story of musical theatre composer, Franklin Shepard (Johan Samuelsson) and his rise to success which of course includes his collaborations and personal relationships. It’s a highly accessible piece although the imaginative way the story is unfolded backwards from 1980 to 1957 in ten scenes was clearly too much for the restive, chatty quartet of men in front of me who left – to my relief – in the interval.

Rosalind Philp is very convincing and plausible as Mary, Franklin’s writer friend who secretly loves him, supports him through many dips and troughs before finally succumbing, in despair and hopelessness, to the ugliness of drink. She turns in a bravura performance with some fine singing. None of this cast, incidentally, has a radio mic but, given the vocal strength of the performers and the intimate acoustic of the studio theatre it works very well without.

Samuelsson and Brett McHarge who plays his librettist, Charley Kringas, are both new to Artform and I hope the company manages to coax them back for more. Both men sing with real passion and panache and they spark adroitly off each other whatever the mood – and there are plenty of mood changes and shifts in Merrily We Roll Along. Each is a naturalistic actor and talented singer.

Danielle Dowsett has a lot of fun as the merciless diva, Gussie Carnegie. Her Musical Husbands number is quite a showstopper. And there’s impressive work from Rosalind Killpack as Beth Spencer. Her soprano singing is of professional standard and she can be very funny especially in the slick witty Bobbie and Jackie and Jack number with Samuelsson and McHargue.

A word of praise too for Jo Robinson who plays a whole battery of minor roles. She’s a talented, professionally trained dancer but this is her first musical theatre performance in eighteen years and I hope it won’t be the last. Her performance as the interviewer with Samuelsson and McHarge in a TV studio is like a mini masterclass in acting as the situation slips out of her character’s control.

The small playing space in the studio theatre is quite limiting but choreographer Kemal Ibrahim (also new to the company) makes the very best of it with several compelling movement routines. It’s a good idea to seat the band – led by MD Paul Harrison and making an excellent sound – on a bridge too because it is acoustically effective as well as freeing playing space below.

This show is another success for director, Sheila Arden, and Artform which has continued to produce an ever higher standard work since its relaunch in 2012.

 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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