Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway in November 1981 and closed November 1981 after only 16 performances. I saw the original Australian production in1996 with Tom Burlinson, Tony Sheldon, Peta Toppano and Gina Riley. I remembered thinking it was a very complicated musical. Since then, there have been umpteen rewrites, and this current production is much slicker and much more accessible than I remember the 1996 production to be.
Merrily is basically a show told in reverse. It centres on three friends and the journey their friendship has had to endure over the twenty odd years. We start off at Frank’s celebration party, where he is now a successful film producer, and we see Mary who is obviously now an alcoholic and a wreck. Absent is the third friend Charlie, who apparently had a falling out with Frank after a television interview. This sets us up for the next two and a half hours, as we find out, ‘how did they get to be here, what was the moment?’
JYM Theatre Company have a lot of courage in producing this rarely seen Sondheim musical. It was with trepidation I ventured down to Elwood to see what they had done with this Sondheim gem.
Once I heard the first few bars of the overture, I knew I was in for a special night. Phillip Seeton has his orchestra sounding great. Even though the brass were at the back of the stage behind a sound barrier and everyone else was cramped into the pit, it somehow worked. The sound was even and constant throughout the show. Marcello Lo Ricco, the go-to guy for sound, once again did an amazing job. Everyone was heard when needed and the sound was crystal clear. It really makes a difference when you’ve been rehearsing for months and you have a great sound person to carry the show into the theatre.
Director Pip Mushin knew what he wanted for this production and I’d say, on the whole, he achieved it. The characterisations for each and every cast member were well thought-out, and this paid off big time for the cast. The use of the space was also great, from the flashy Hollywood sign in the beginning to the roof tops at the end of the show, each flowed really well with the help of some sliding screens.
Brendy Ford’s choreography suited each time period appropriately, and was well within the means of the cast who executed the moves extremely well. Ford’s chorey was matched scene for scene with excellent costuming, especially the 60’s which looked fantastic!
The cast consisted of an ensemble of seventeen, who were constantly at work. The main part of the ensemble flowed into different roles in each section easily. Soren Adkin, the youngest member of the ensemble, played Franklin Shepard Jr. and had a very tuneful singing voice for one so young.
Liana Brener and Nick Bakstorm played married couple Joe Johnson and Gussie Carnegie. While both sold their respective parts extremely well, they both unfortunately also had pitching issues, which took away from their roles.
Jen Bush played Franklin’s first wife Beth, and while she had an amazing singing voice, I wasn’t totally sold in her love for Franklin.
Partrick Hill, Jonathan Goldberg and Stephanie John were all perfectly cast as Franklin, Charlie and Mary.
Hill has the matinee idol good looks, together with a golden voice. It’s not surprising to read that he’d just returned from a touring company of Cats. Hill was brilliant as Frank, from the successful cocky Frank, to the Franks full of doubt, and the dreamer Frank.
Goldberg matched Hill in his performance and the TV interview was one of the highlights of the show. I believe that, at times, the frustration of Charlie could have been amplified, but this is just nit-picking at a great performance.
I’m not sure why I haven’t seen Stephanie John perform before, but I’ll be sure following her closely from now. It was a pure delight to watch John effortlessly attack the difficult Sondheim score and to traverse from an alcoholic in her 40’s to the naive Mary when she first bumped into Frank and Charlie. John has a natural gift with her acting and her voice is beautiful.
Pip Munshin must have been thanking his lucky stars to have this trio all audition.
All in all, this is a great production of a rarely performed gem. Don’t miss the opportunity in seeing this production – who knows when it will be around again!
Merrily We Roll Along is playing at the Phoenix Theatre Elwood until September 5th and tickets can be booked at www.jymtheatre.com