“Feel the flow, hear what’s happening”
As part of the ongoing Sondheim birthday celebrations, the Donmar Warehouse is staging concert versions of two of his shows which have previously played at the theatre, but using the larger space of the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The first one was Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 show with music and lyrics from the man himself and book by George Furth, and this performance saw 12 of the original 15 members of the original Donmar Warehouse production from 2000 reunited on the stage.
The show covers two decades in the life of three friends but tells the story in reverse, starting with Franklin Shepherd a and works back in time to show how his professional and personal relationships, especially with collaborator Charley Kringas and confidante Mary Flynn, developed and changed as his success grew. And where this show really shone was in the superlative strength of the central trio: Julian Ovenden as the smooth-voiced and piano-playing Franklin was excellent in tracing the journey from jaded bitterness back to youthful idealism, Samantha Spiro was simply fantastic as the ever-constant Mary whose professional success can’t hide her personal disappointment at her unrequited love for her friend and Daniel Evans’ silver-voiced and nicely comic Charley was delightful. Anna Francolini also deserves a mention with a brilliantly judged acerbic performance as Gussie, Frank’s second wife.
Rob Ashford directed with slightly more action than I was expecting for a concert version, but it wasn’t too much to distract and added some useful clarity to proceedings and the 9 member band under Gareth Valentine’s musical direction were on smashing form, sounding majestic and filling the Queens with a wonderful sound. The company around the leads also did extremely well with the constant choral interjections and creating a great energy around the sparkling score which contains such gems as ‘Old Friends’, ‘Like It Was’, ‘Good Thing Going’, ‘Our Time’ and the title track.
But despite not doubting the quality on show here, it didn’t quite transcend into a truly amazing experience overall and this is because I have discovered I actually have a funny relationship with Sondheim: until the last couple of years, I hadn’t actually seen that many of his shows performed on stage yet through cabaret shows, compilation albums and the joys of YouTube, I was familiar with many of his songs, but obviously out of the context of the shows from which they come. A pertinent example here would be one of my personal favourites of Bernadette Peters singing the hell out of ‘Not A Day Goes By’ with real relish which had the effect of making Mary Stockley’s version here seem a little anaemic by comparison.
This all has been made clearly obvious to me this year with seeing so many Sondheim shows and not really being grabbed by them as opposed to the individual songs, if I’m honest: part of it is the expectation level but part of it is also the sheer unrelenting reverence that he seems to enjoy across the board from fans and critics alike. To me, the starting point seems to so often be this reflexive statement of his genius rather than a true assessment of the various productions on their actual merit. So whilst musically Merrily We Roll Along is a great show, structurally it is undeniably quite clunky and much of the exposition felt clumsily handled: I wonder how much I would actually like a fully staged version.
Still, this was a great opportunity to see some class performers comfortably on their game, I just adore Samantha Spiro and Julian Ovenden really is a fantastic singer and so I wouldn’t have missed it, despite whatever reservations I may have which I doubt are shared by anyone else who was there!