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posted/updated: 05 Sep 2018 -
Merrily We Roll Along
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth
society/company: Cygnet Players (directory)
performance date: 04 Sep 2018
venue: Putney Arts Theatre, Ravenna Road, Putney, London, SW15 6AW
reviewer/s: Frank Kaye (Sardines review)

If you only read one sentence of this review this is it – get your tickets now for this unmissable piece of musical theatre. I watched the show with a composer, arranger, conductor and sometime performer of Sondheim musicals. He and I were blown away.

For my part I was astounded by the power of the structure and the emotional impact of the words and songs of Merrily We Roll Along. As a reviewer, director and performer of drama I was not expecting to be so immersed in the fate of six people as their evolving relationships were beautifully portrayed through a peeling back of time – enabled through the sung reversing of the years, the scrolling of the back projection and the incredibly resonant references to the social and political events of the seventies, sixties and fifties.

For my colleague’s part, he had told me that, “There is no limit to how far Sondheim musicals can go wrong!” In the case of Merrily We Roll Along he saw a long list of challenges in:- the angularity of the music, the chromaticism, the sheer volume of words and notes, how each musical phrase has to be understood as speech, the need to pick up the internal references between the same songs with changes of time and mood, the unexplained musical entrances and the fundamental complexity of shifting the musical mood backwards in time but with different transitions for the different characters. All these challenges were mastered with assurance and professionalism and with some moments of sheer brilliance.

The evening starts with the orchestra attacking the complex music with plenty of guts which augurs well for the challenges ahead. The convention of time passing with the reversing, time-tagged, projected images which fill the entire back wall is immediately established. The lighting is colourful and zonal and never wavers in establishing the right mood throughout. There is a single slightly raised platform up stage right which serves for a wide range of purposes and various simple props are moved on and off stage with professional ease – including a grand piano. The final piece of the scenography challenge is the costumes which, given the time shifts involved, are spot on throughout and in the case of Gussie, played by Louisa Roberts, there is continuous excitement as to what garment will grace her statuesque form next.

For a first night the company got into the swing of things quickly and the brilliant choreography is immediately evident – Zoë Dobell, the multi-talented director doubles as choreographer. The ensemble singing, dancing and acting are precise throughout but with no diminution of enthusiasm – Sondheim and Furth created an entity called the Blob which is a perfect example of a group of performers behaving as one and their ability to overwhelm Franklin and Charley in Good Thing Going in the second half is a musical and theatrical triumph. Many of the company have their own little things going on during the show which provides nice punctuation to the overall story line – watch out for the telephone answering machine.

The story is essentially tagged to the reverse progress of Franklin Shepard’s ambitions and desires. Andrew Overin gives a completely assured performance as Franklin, which is no doubt informed by his extensive experience performing Sondheim. He probably has the most difficulty making the reverse age transition but his rendition, with Charley and Beth in the second act, of Bobby and Jackie and Jack is superbly energetic.

From the beginning there is a comforting presence created by Olga-Marie Pratt’s portrayal of Mary – for me this is reinforced as she arrives on the roof towards the end of the show reminding us of her love for and loyalty to Franklin in the opening scene. She provides a wonderful example of acting through song.

There is little question that this show takes off with the television interview scene in which Charley Kringus (for that is his full name!) lets rip at Franklin in the number named after him. The audience were close to a standing ovation as Adam Walker-Galbraith (and the orchestra) concluded this spectacularly complex piece of musical dexterity. Up to this point Adam keeps the personality of Charley somewhat shrivelled and, indeed, it is quite noticeable that thereafter he maintains a lack of eye contact with Franklin and the audience until we return to the early optimistic days in the latter sections of Act 2. He then opens his countenance to the entire auditorium – amazing characterisation.

Another mesmerising performance is that of Louisa Roberts as Gussie. She gradually takes more and more of the audience’s attention with her sensual and provocative portrayal of Gussie and then finally eases into song to complete the seduction (of the audience as well as Franklin).

We have to wait for the arrival of Franklin’s wife Beth until towards the end of the first act. Kate Gledhill completely transforms Beth from a deeply wronged woman portrayed with a hard rendition of Not a Day Goes By to the later, but earlier, rendition of the same number in the second half where she appears a bright eminently desirable catch for Franklin.

Russell Bramley does an excellent job of building his Joe Josephson character backwards from a broken cuckolded man to confident impresario. Russell notes in the programme that he fell in love with this show when it played at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013. I would be surprised if this Cygnet performance does not at least equal the 2013 show.

This production demonstrates how the genius of an author and composer can be combined with directing, acting and musicianship talents to provide a unique aesthetic experience that sadly only lasts for six performances. The through line of the story and complex shifts of the needs and desires of the characters were superbly achieved. The solos hit the spot, the duets and trios provided musical exposition of the relationships between the key characters and all the ensemble numbers created excitement and drama aplenty.

Everybody involved with this production should be proud and audiences for the rest of the week should be at least as delighted as the one on the opening night. Value for money at £18 is off the scale.

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