I had thought about writing this review backwards. For about a nano-second. Then I realized it isn’t a remotely original idea and also it makes me sound like Yoda.
‘Merrily We Roll Along’, which has been playing to huge critical and public acclaim at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, is one of my favourite musicals. I’ve seen it three times and never been disappointed. This is surprising as the original production bombed when it opened on Broadway in 1981. It’s a difficult one to “get right”. And this production has definitely got it right.
The story of three friends starts as they are hitting 40 – and barely restraining themselves from hitting each other. As the show progresses we go back in time – bitter alcoholic Mary transforms into a fresh faced, teetotal aspiring novelist. Charley and Frank become best friends, hoping they might become the next Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or something like that.
The casting was perfect – the central trio of Frank, Charley and Mary played to perfection by Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell respectively. I’ve always wanted to play Mary – she is a brilliantly witty and flawed character – so watching Russell’s portrayal was like a masterclass just in case I ever get the chance.
The part of Gussie has been given greater focus than in previous productions I’ve seen, played with full on diva fabulousness by Josefina Gabrielle. But it was Frank’s first wife, Beth, played by Clare Foster, who made the biggest impact from the supporting cast – I have never heard such raw emotion in the show’s most powerful song, ‘Not a Day Goes By’. I remember seeing her playing a supporting role in Avenue Q and wishing she had more to do. Well, now she does and she does a great job with what must be one of the hardest parts in the show – only joining the action halfway through.
I would struggle to pick a weakness in the entire cast – perhaps the cute kid playing Frank’s son could have been a bit less, well, less cute. But that’s just me. I hate kids. What I love is an intelligent Sondheim show being directed in such a way that it is completely accessible to its audience.
Now hurry up and close your well deserved West End transfer so I can apply for the performance rights.