Reviewed by Tony Peters
The Menier Chocolate Factory continues its run of West End transfers with first-time director Maria Friedman’s sophisticated and hugely enjoyable production of Sondheim’s “flop” about the rise to fame and eventual disintegration of a writing partnership.
The history of Merrily is well documented. The original Harold Prince-directed show closed on Broadway after just 16 performances in 1981, never recovering from what were mostly negative reviews.
While the score was generally praised, it was the shows structure — it’s a narrative told in reverse — that seemed to upset the show’s detractors.
Sondheim revised the show in 1985 and further tweaks over the years paid off when the Donmar Warehouse production picked up the Olivier for best musical in 2001.
Now Maria Friedman, a long time performer of Sondheim’s work and a former Merrily cast member herself, has brought the show to a new level, bringing out the subtleties of the book and Sondheim’s witty and knowing lyrics. And it certainly helps that she’s well served by a wonderfully talented ensemble cast who don’t put foot wrong throughout.
The story starts in 1976 at the plush California home of composer Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers), currently the toast of the showbiz community, but now estranged from his writing partner Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley). Shepard’s only link with his early days being the enduring friendship with writer Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell).
As we move back through the years we witness Charley and Franklin’s rise to fame and the effect it has on their lives until we reach 1957 and three idealistic young people (Frank, Charley and Mary) sitting on a New York rooftop looking out for Sputnik — the dawn of a new age in more ways than one.
The three leads hold the piece together very well, but it’s Jenna Russell, superb as the acerbic Mary, who once again proves herself to be one of our top performers of Sondheim’s work.
How refreshing to have a show in London that has the power to provoke thought as well as lift the spirits with superb music and sublime performances.
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Maria Friedman
Mark UmbersFranklin Shepard
Jena RussellMary Flynn
Damian HumbleyCharley Kringas
Glyn KerslakeJoe Josephson
Josefina GabrielleGussie Carnegie
MatthewBarrow, Martin Callaghan, Julie Jupp, Noah Miller,
Amanda Minihan, Kirk Patterson, Amy Ellen Richardson, Ashley Robinson, Robbie Scotcher, Zizi Strallen, Joanna Woodward.