The Menier Chocolate Factory has now become London’s leading home for both refining and redefining Sondheim musicals. But whereas its ravishing productions of Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, both of which went on to the West End and then Broadway, were already established masterpieces when they were given the scaled-down but emotionally intensified Menier treatment, Merrily We Roll Along has, by contrast, always been considered a problem show.
Its original Broadway production in 1981 ran for just 16 performances. But now Maria Friedman, who as a performer is the UK’s foremost working exponent of Sondheim’s work and whose credits include playing Mary in a 1992 production of Merrily at the old Leicester Haymarket, makes a startlingly good directorial debut with a show she clearly knows inside out.
She doesn’t so much solve the show’s problems as embrace them. As a musical about a mid-life crisis played out against a theatrical background, it is a spiritual cousin of Sondheim’s 1971 masterwork Follies; but a show about the challenges of growing up feels as though it has finally grown up, too – partly thanks to the older casting of the leads.
Played in the original Broadway production by actors in their early 20s, and invariably in subsequent productions by younger actors, too, the central trio of Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell are older, which amplifies the show’s rueful sense of the wrong turns, compromised choices and collapsed dreams that each variously undergo and brings them to piercing, heartbreaking life.
Composer-turned-film producer Frank Shepherd seemingly has it all – “If you had no idea what charisma meant/And you just can’t be jealous, he’s such a gent… He has a wife who is gorgeous and a son who’s straight”, sing his friends. But the chunkily handsome Umbers exposes the gaping vacuum of unhappiness at the centre of his life with the brooding, introspective longing of a man who knows he has taken some wrong turns – a recurring metaphor for Sondheim – and is now living with forever tarnished regrets.
Meanwhile, as his one-time best friend, lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas, Humbley beautifully conveys his bitter disappointment in his friend, and his own cruel betrayal of him on live public television in a stunningly rendered tour-de-force number, Franklin Shepherd Inc.
Most heartbreaking of all is Mary, the writer friend whose unrequited love for Frank defines her life, played with spellbinding yearning by Russell. Playing another trio of the women that Frank variously has romantic relationships with instead – his first and second wives Beth and Gussie, and mistress Meg – Clare Foster, Josefina Gabrielle and Zizi Strallen respectively pitch them perfectly. Gabrielle, particularly, is a show-stopping revelation in the effortless but skin-deep sophistication of a Broadway star who has grasped her way to the top from being a producer’s secretary to his wife, and then dumps him for Frank.
Atmospherically coloured with precise, mood-shifting designs (Soutra Gilmour), tight Fosse-esque period choreography (Tim Jackson) and terrific musical direction (Catherine Jayes), this is a production of crushing beauty about crushed lives that paradoxically offers an exhilarating reclamation of a one-time flop. Could the next stop be Broadway?