Photo: Kim Williams Photography
With so much of musical theatre being firmly in the musical comedy tradition, there are few composers who can turn their hand to what could be claimed as musical tragedy. Sondheim can of course, as he has shown on many occasions, and in Merrily We Roll Along, we see once again the conjunction of music, emotion and narrative that is the hallmark of works like Sweeney Todd.
Merrily We Roll Along has had a chequered production history although, as with so many of Sondheim’s shows, later productions have often been more successful than earlier ones, to the extent that this work is now seen as a secure part of the Sondheim repertoire and not to be classed with those works seen as flawed.
The narrative structure reverses time, telling the story of three young people from the moment their lives have all fallen apart, and back through time, ending with them as young, hopeful and exhilarated by the opportunities they see ahead of them. Some productions have cast different actors for the earlier and later scenes, but with the exception of guest Dudley Rogers in a fleeting appearance as the present-day Franklin Sheppard, the PPA production casts single performers in the roles throughout the piece.
As this is a cast of highly talented but very young performers, the effect is to make us believe in them increasingly as they get younger; and these actors are much more successful at this transformation than have been some older actors in previous productions who have had to progressively appear younger than their actual age. The central trio in this production end the performance playing their actual age, making their hopes and dreams all the more poignant, especially since this cast themselves must all have similar dreams for their future.
I have always looked forward to seeing PPA perform, and it is a privilege to see a full-scale production of a musical such as this at the in-house Bellerby Studio Theatre, with impressive costumes and an effective set. The large cast performed the ensemble role, so important in this show, with clear diction, precision and aplomb. Casting opportunities were increased with five roles double-cast for alternate days.
There are six key roles in Merrily We Roll Along. Dominic Harbison gave a good account of Joe Josephson, the producer who helps to persuade the central character to compromise on his principles. It is a difficult and unsympathetic role, but Harbison gave a good account of it, at his best when pleading for the survival of his marriage to Gussie Carnegie, once his secretary but later a film-star. As the selfish and unprincipled Gussie, Elizabeth Lowe gave a convincing portrayal as well as conveying something of the brittleness beneath the veneer.
As Beth, later to marry the central character, Emily Day regressed sympathetically from weary partner to eager young performer, essentially one of the few fully sympathetic roles in the show. Audience sympathies are also likely to be with Charley Kringas, lyricist and playwright who sees his ambitions first compromised and then destroyed by his partner’s decisions, often without his involvement. In this part, Luke Archer managed the age changes particularly well, as convincing in his later years as he was as a naïve young writer. It was a performance of considerable maturity.
The same should be said of Connor Philipson in the central role of Franklin Shepard, the composer who progressively sells out on his dreams and his relationships, and it is a mark of the performer’s subtlety in the role that audience sympathy stayed with him despite his character’s failings.
Always there for these two, and in perhaps the performance of the night, Nicole Lockwood-West gave a funny, zany and ultimately tragic account of the doomed Mary Flynn, starting the evening as a rejected alcoholic and ending it as the young student always on the sidelines and already hopelessly in love with Franklin. The central trio were particularly effective in Bobby and Jackie and Jack, a lesser-known Sondheim number that means so much more in context.
The production benefits from sure-handed direction from Richard Milholland, overcoming the timescale confusions of this production for the audience. With Mary McAdam as Musical Director and choreography from Louise Pieri, this was an enthralling account of a complex and unfairly neglected show. I hope the people of Guildford know how lucky they are to have musical theatre of such a standard on their doorstep, and that the struggle to save the Electric Theatre will result in more PPA performances there, enabling larger audiences to enjoy the talents of these young stars of the future.
Photo: Kim Williams Photography