Merrily the show rolls along in the Lawler Theatre, with Watch This’ latest production, Merrily We Roll Along opening to sold-out audiences last week. The show, their next Sondheim offering following their production of Company has a book by George Furth and is based on the original 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Merrily we roll along

The story centres on relationships – following the demise of the relationship of three friends: Frank, Mary and Charley, and their significant others, in reverse over 20 years. The show opens with Frank ending yet another marriage, and as a successful film producer and songwriter, and ends with how the three friends initially met, giving the show an overall happy and positive feel, instilling hope in the goodness of people in the audience, when in fact it adds layers and layers of how these terrible people became who they are in a nonlinear fashion.

The show is bright and colourful but tired, like a cut-rate version, or practice run of Sondheim and Furth’s Company, but Company actually came first 11 years earlier in 1970, with Merrily We Roll Along to not hit Broadway until 1981.  The shows both extensively examine people and relationships in a dynamic, evocative way, as well as both went through extensive productions and revisions by the production team.

Merrily we roll along

The transitions through time were well managed and kept interesting and quick, giving the audience short bursts of music as well as movement, dance and character transition to break up the lengthy scenes focusing on interactions with the characters. The stage is well managed for a small space, but there are instances of people stumbling, near misses, and with the cast moving all of the set around, it’s a little noisy and a little messy, but the cast may still be getting used to the space.

The show’s standout feature is being accompanied live on stage by musical director Cameron Thomas on a grand piano, and the occasional use of an upright piano played by Lyall Brooks, and no other instruments. This is charming, simple and feels like a throwback to when the play was written, with 1920s and 1930s jazz piano influences. However, the cast are let down by the choice not to mic the performers, leaving them competing with the piano occasionally. Harmonies are lost and the lower registers do not cut over the piano. The cast spend much of their time moving around the stage, and more time than they should with their backs to the audience, and due to the lack of microphones their voices are instantly lost. I was lucky enough to sit close to the stage, and even so far forward there were moments where it was difficult to hear the beautiful voices in the show.

Merrily we roll along

The show is full of Melbourne’s talented performers, including Lyall Brooks (Frank), Nicole Melloy (Mary), Nelson Gardner (Charley) and Sophie Weiss (Beth) as the principal cast. The energetic, often manic performers shine in the space, but they compete with the piano and the space more often than they should.  The choreography by David Wynen is bustling and fun, and make good use of the restrictive space, cordoned off by the sweeping staircase that takes up half of the stage.

The show is classic Sondheim and a merry night at the theatre, playing at the Lawler at Southbank Theatre until 15 July. Tickets:

Photo Credit: Jodie Hutchinson