“Me with music and you the words“
Menier Chocolate Factory Christmas musicals have a habit of making the leap into the West End and given the rapturous reception that Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along received last year, it was no surprise to hear that it would make the well-deserved transfer into the Harold Pinter Theatre for a 12 week engagement. My original review of the show can be read here and perhaps not unexpectedly, very little has changed of my feelings about this rather magnificent production. But more surprising was how little I felt it had changed in the considerably larger space of this new theatre.
It’s a good six months since I saw it so perhaps my memory isn’t too reliable but it really does feel very similar indeed, Soutra Gilmour’s design slots into the theatre in a similar fashion and the staging – although expanded to fill the space – moves around it in the same way. Not that this is a bad thing, but rather that I’m not exactly sure about how it might play from further back or up in the theatre than you’d ever be in the Menier. Where the lack of discernible difference is a definite boon though is in the performance level.
First-time director Maria Friedman really has worked wonders with her high-quality cast, ensuring a depth of emotional understanding that underpins the customary strength of their vocals and creates much more rounded characters from Sondheim’s sometimes-forensic approach to people. So Mark Umbers‘ brash Franklin Shepard garners, if not quite sympathy, a measure of compassion due to the well-meaning but suffocating pressure inflicted by his loved ones – his face as Clare Foster’s first wife Beth tears into Not A Day Goes By is a masterpiece in reactive acting – the reverse chronology allowing us to see just how much of his rebellious streak comes from these expectations.
Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell remain blissfully strong as his long-time friends and associates whose relationships are unable withstand the relentless march of time and ego as Shepard’s success increases at their expense but it is in the supporting performances of Foster and Josefina Gabrielle as Broadway babe Gussie that the richness of this ensemble really catches fire, both women doing some extraordinary work. My niggling doubts about the show still remain – I’d get rid of the moppet and the overly busy choreography for the ensemble routines – but make no mistake, this is some of the best musical theatre in town so make the most of the opportunity to see it (again!).