REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
After a year of starts, stops, shutdowns and lockdowns, Merrily We Roll Along finally reached its opening night at the iconic Hayes Theatre. It offers Sydney audiences a sophisticated and layered re-imagining of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most adored pieces of work.
Sondheim’s tale of friendship, hope and connections is famously told in reverse, introducing us to our three leads, Franklin Shepard (Andrew Coshan), Charley Kringas (Ainsley Melham) and Mary Flynn (Elise McCann), at the end of their story. The cast takes us on a journey backwards through Franklin’s and Charley’s journey as budding composers whose friendship becomes strained when Franklin abandons music for a career as a Hollywood film producer.
In director Dean Bryant’s production there is much to feast on for Sondheim lovers. A captivating mixture of live and pre-recorded video magic (Dave Bergman) projects the actors faces onto the top of stage, illuminating the rich storytelling that is embedded into Sondheim’s writing. This also manages to widen the intimate space of the theatre itself and adds a layer of comedy in key scenes – one extreme closeup on Choshan’s face was a particular highlight.
The set (Jeremy Allen) and costumes (Melanie Liertz) are straight out of the 70’s to the 50’s, and work to bring audiences into the world in which we journey backwards with the characters.
For those of you who can’t quite digest the overstimulating musical style of Sondheim’s scores, Bryant and musical director Andrew Worboys have lasered in on the honest storytelling moments between the members of the ensemble.
As Franklin, Andrew Coshan presents a Sondheim protagonist taken right off the writer’s page. Coshan embodies Franklin’s musical talent through the piano that never leaves the stage, as well as his ambition to be taken seriously as a creative. Bryant highlights the commentary on artistic ambition that Sondheim brings to Merrily through the character of Franklin, and Coshan attacks this head on.
Playing opposite is Ainsley Melham’s Charley, who offers one of the purest performances seen at the Hayes. Melham’s movement, characterisations and tone are deeply reflective of Charley Kringas’s anxious ticks and flamboyant charm. Melham’s rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” perfectly lands an Act One show stopping number. Even if Sondheim isn’t for your tastebuds, you can’t deny that Melham makes it clear why Sondheim’s pieces aren’t for easily frightened performers.
Rounding out the trio is Elise McCann as Mary Flynn. An unapologetic New Yorker in both accent and spirit, McCann understands Mary’s role as the glue that keeps the three rolling along. Never quite managing to take the spotlight, McCann’s performance is subtle and honest and relentlessly works to serve the overall narrative. With well-seasoned comedic chops, McCann’s Flynn garners sympathy the further the story moves backwards, and without her, her two fellow performers would be lost in the wind.
Grounding the rest of the production are Georgina Hopson’s Gussie Carnegie, Tiarne Sue Yek’s Beth, Vidya Makan, Aaron Tsindos and Evan Lever. For a performer, Merrily offers an abundance of scenes on which to chew, from Hopson’s explosive Act Two opening number (which almost raised us to standing ovation) to Makan’s fervent reporter expressions that are projected onscreen. Bryant and Worboys have used their lockdown time wisely to build this ensemble into a powerhouse unit.
However, the show comes undone at times in its pacing. Particular Sondheim numbers seem to blend into the rest and don’t fully allow key moments to settle. Narrative twists that are revealed as the scenes regress never quite have the weight they could do to bring out Sondheim’s and George Furth’s thematic commentary. However, the chemistry between the characters on stage and the strength of the ensemble compensate for these shortcomings.
After a turbulent two years for the theatre community, Merrily We Roll Along is a joyous return to the stage that offers commentary on the musical genre itself, reminds us of the importance of connection, and forces us to reflect on our own journeys in life, where we’ve been and where we are going. It is clear that the team of Merrily are relishing every moment on stage, following their protracted lead up to this moment. With this much energy on offer, it would be an injustice not to indulge in it.
Merrily We Roll Along is now playing at the Hayes Theatre until November 27, 2021.
See the Hayes Theatre’s website for full tickets and more information.
Photo credit: Phil Erbacher