A happy little West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s show that houses such standards as “Old Friends”, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Our Time”. The music is surprisingly potent and the book packed with vicious one-liners in the New York style. Transferred from the intimate performance space of the Chocolate Factory, Maria Friedman’s revival production looses a little intimacy to the tiers of the Harold Pinter theatre, formerly the Comedy Theatre.
Merrily We Roll Along is a show I’d forgotten about, despite knowing several Sondheim fanatics at the time, I didn't see it when the show didn’t run for long in London when it first opened here in 1982, not following on the popularity of Sweeney Todd. But there was recording of the Broadway production; this didn’t flatter: my memories are of scratchy LPs played to distortion in friends’ squats in Brixton. Several numbers became classics in their own right, not least because of their gay resonances in the era when much of even the London gay community was still emerging from the closet. It's been a emotional treat to hear these numbers in context and in first rate performances.
The plot works backwards in time from a final row that wrecks Franklin Shepard’s successful career as a writer of Broadway shows. Act 2, 1962 going back to 1957, was certainly intimate and gusty in turns with the cast clearly enjoying a rapport with the audience. Act 1, 1976 going back to 1966, is full of dramatic tension and the musical dissonances which make Stephen Sondheim’s music superficially unattractive. But the small space didn’t flatter here.
Merrily We Roll Along is a clever piece, not only rolling time backwards but featuring cameo numbers in the various styles. The production echoes this with period costumes and action, particularly the dances, staging and movement. The amplified sound of the voices is resolutely mono which makes it difficult to associate voice with figure, particularly in the busy first scenes.
The cast was led by Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley, all in fine voice and seeming to enjoy the show. The big ensembles worked well and several solos side-swiped me with the unexpected emotion of hearing a number heard long ago performed fresh and vigorously and in context on stage. The 6 or 7 person band gave a gusty performance with Catherine Jayes the MD, leading the band from the keyboard.