Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Merrily We Roll Along, June 30 2017 **1/2

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
Based on the play by George F. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Production by Watch This
At Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until July 15, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 30, 2017
Stars: **1/2

Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon July 3, 2017, and later in print. KH
Nelson Gardner, Nicole Melloy & Lyall Brooks - photo by Jodie Hutchinson 

Merrily We Roll Along features an admirable score by Stephen Sondheim, but it flopped when it opened on Broadway in 1981 and, even after more recent rewrites and awards, it continues to be problematic to stage.

The narrative (book by George Furth) travels in reverse from 1976 to 1957, telling the story of Franklin (Frank) Shepard (Lyall Brooks), a gifted composer who becomes a successful movie producer by pursuing money and fame at the expense of his musical vocation, his friendships and his marriage.

In the first scene in 1976, Frank’s dear friend, Mary (Nicole Melloy), a published novelist who is now a jaded, resentful and booze-addled drama critic, criticises Frank’s life choices and reminds him about his ex-friend and co-writer of successful musicals, Charley Kringas (Nelson Gardner), now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Despite the distinction of Sondheim’s singable tunes and witty lyrics, the reverse chronological structure can be confusing for an audience, and in this production the flaws are amplified by the uneven quality of the singing, some melodramatic acting and intermittently clunky direction (Sara Grenfell) and choreography (David Wynen).

Furth’s script does not create fully rounded characters and Frank is not a sympathetic character so, although Brooks is engaging as the younger Frank, he sometimes pushes too hard to make the older Frank funny or charming, making the character look like a buffoon.

Gardner captures Charley’s earnestness, commitment and moral code and delivers with skill and passion Charley’s song, Franklin Shepard Inc., a scathing, rapid-fire attack on Frank’s relentless ambition, although Gardner’s later songs lack some vocal control.

Melloy’s vocal skill does justice to Sondheim’s music and she successfully expresses a range of emotion as the insecure and lovelorn Mary, who tries for two decades to hide her unrequited love for Frank.

With solo piano providing accompaniment (Cameron Thomas), the musical highlights include Brooks, Gardner and Melloy singing Old Friends, as well as the trio’s hopeful and excited song, Opening Doors, about their attempts to make it in their chosen artistic pursuits in 1959.

Sophie Weiss brings vocal warmth and control to the role of Beth, Frank’s first wife, and her rendition of Not A Day Goes By is moving, while the number, Bobbie and Jackie and Jack, her trio with Gardner and Brooks, is a clownish highlight.

The big pay-off is the final song, Our Time, in which the younger incarnations of Frank, Charley and their newfound friend, Mary, dream of their bright futures while watching Sputnik fly overhead in 1957.

The title song acts as a clever scene transition to indicate time passing and youth fading, with lyrics such as, ‘Time goes by and hopes go dry / But you can still try for your dream’.

The opening chorus of the title song lacks impact due to the vocal weaknesses in the eight-person ensemble, however, that same ensemble delivers with pizzazz The Blob, a snappy song that slams smug socialites who act as social critics and arbiters of taste.

Despite the bumpy production, Merrily We Roll Along is worth seeing if only to enjoy Sondheim’s accomplished music and lyrics.

Kate Herbert

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