Merrily We Roll Along

Date 7th January 2020
Society Festival Players
Venue Robinson Theatre Hills Road Cambridge
Type of Production Musical
Director Cat Nichol
Musical Director Ana Sanderson
Choreographer David Mallabone
Producer Oliver Fisher

Report

Author: Julie Petrucci

This show by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, when launched in 1981, lasted just 16 performances on Broadway and ended the partnership between Sondheim and Harold Prince. ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ has rarely been performed since and even less by amateurs. I, like most theatre goers have never seen it done before. 

It is easy with hindsight to see why Broadway quickly lost interest, it is a complicated narrative told backwards.  The show opens in 1976 at a party to celebrate the premier of the latest film of wealthy producer Franklin Shepard, and then moves backwards in time to 1957, when he was a penniless composer and tells the story of the rise to fame of three young talents, and the price they pay for success. 

As always with Sondheim the music is challenging, but both musicians and singers rose to that challenge to produce some lovely harmonies and individual singing.  Musical Director, Ana Sanderson had obviously worked hard with everyone, I did not know the show and was relying on the singers to tell the story and I heard almost every word.  The solos and small group numbers were very clearly sung, and all with great sincerity.   Compliments to the splendid musicians who, to me, sounded note-perfect.

The show presents some interesting challenges to the principals, as usually, with a show, which covers a long period of time, you expect a character to develop and become stronger, but with this one, they had to become more naïve versions of themselves. The three leads were quite simply exemplary, and carried the show with great confidence. Andrew Ruddick as Franklin Shepard, is both a great singer and an accomplished actor, and was more than ably matched by Matthew Brown and Samantha Billing as Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn respectively. Most of the songs are narrative and required considerable acting skills as well as emotional delivery to get them across. It was soon apparent that in the hands of these three it was never going to be a problem. They owned the stage and held the audience’s attention throughout.  

The amazing Emma Vieceli as Frank’s second wife Gussie Carnegie was the perfect scheming climber who dominated Frank at will, well contrasted by the more innocence and understated performance of Catriona Clarke as Beth, Frank’s first wife. Both performances perfectly captured the mood of their respective periods of Frank’s life.  Warren Clark as impresario Joe Josephson, made the transition backwards from financial leech to successful Hollywood producer with much aplomb. Fran Watson well portrayed the typical US TV News Interviewer, suitably in control as Charley and Frank’s relationship came apart on live TV.  This scene was one of the highlights of the evening.

In my opinion every member of this cast is perfectly capable of playing a lead role, in fact I have seen most of them in that capacity.  Philippa Clark and Oliver Fisher as Beth’s parents suitably captured the concerned 1950’s attitude to their daughter’s marriage to Frank and the rest of the supporting cast  Saskia Higginson (Meg Kincaid), Steve Nicholson (Tyler), Ash Smith & Ellis Toms (Newsreaders), Gabi Fletcher (Scotty), Danielle Padley (Dory), Tom Greenhalgh (Ru), Matt Wilkinson (Jerome), Michael Du (Bunker), Rebecca Goddard (Make-up Artist) made for a splendidly slick supporting act and an excellent chorus, not a missed cue or duff note between them, very impressive. Finally a special mention for young Ted Tarascan as Franklin Shepard Jnr, who is obviously one to watch.I particularly liked the deceptively simple but effective Choreography by David Mallabone which set the mood of the period perfectly, complimenting the songs and action with plenty of light and shade.  Everything was exceptionally well done, proving the case of less is more. It was extremely effective especially in the Company number ‘That Frank’.

The all black studio space of the Robinson Theatre was well used. Although there was no set as such just steps to a higher level and a low walkway along the back, there was a large screen which counted us back through the years depicting major world events or locations meaning that one always knew when and where the action was occurring.  Personally I felt it all worked very well.  The wardrobe and makeup teams had done an excellent job producing costumes (Lucy Napthine), hairstyles and makeup, rooting the action to the correct period of time, which was constantly changing.  The lighting (Alex Bevan) was well designed and helped to establish the right atmosphere.  The sound (Nick Hall) was exceptionally well operated with well-cued effects and good balance between voices and musicians. 

This is one of Sondheim’s less well-known and infrequently performed musicals and Director Cat Nichol and Festival Players were brave to take on the challenge.  Anyone familiar with my reviews will know that I am not a fan of Sondheim. However I think if ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ had been the first Sondheim show I had encountered I might well have become a fan - or maybe it was just that this production was so very well done that I enjoyed it so much.  A great start to 2020. Thank you to all involved for an evening of virtual professionalism.