After a two-year hiatus and a restructure, JYM Theatre Co, Australia’s only Jewish musical theatre company is back, re-launching with a Stephen Sondheim musical, from a book by George Furth. Born in 1930, Sondheim has a rich and enduring legacy in musical theatre. He has received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Laurence Olivier Award.
Merrily We Roll Along is based upon a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Furth and Sondheim retained the basic structure and overall theme of the theatrical production but updated it to encompass the period from 1957 to 1976.
The musical is set in New York in 1976 and moves backwards. It traces the lives of wealthy, jaded music composer Franklin Shepard and his two best friends through each milestone of their personal and professional lives – the good, the bad and the decidedly ugly. Over nearly two decades Shepard is married, has a child, is divorced and involved with a showbiz diva, a relationship he is desperate to leave. The one constant is his music, which is universally praised. The show ends with a touch of rueful irony, as the three best mates face such a bright future at the start of their careers … and then life gets in the way.
So Merrily We Roll Along is about friendship, show business and chasing dreams. It is a cautionary tale about the lure of the greasepaint and the price one can pay for what is considered success. The drama and bickering in the first act give way to the promise of what may be in the second. The original Broadway production directed by Harold Prince ran for 52 previews and 16 performances in 1981.
Today, the three leads in the 17-person cast are particularly talented and energetic. Their commanding voices are prominent throughout. Patrick Hill plays Franklin Shepard. He trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and Monash University Academy of Performing Arts and brings the necessary melancholy to the role. Showing remarkable restraint (apart from one memorable scene) as his writing partner Charley Kringas is Jonathan Goldberg, in a most impressive display. Goldberg has appeared in several Saltpillar Theatre Company and JYM productions. Stephanie John, too, is a powerful force as Mary Flynn, who is clearly in love with Shepard and, like Kringas, tries desperately to keep Shepard on what she regards as an honourable path. Flynn recently graduated from APO Arts Academy and based upon her performance in Merrily We Roll Along a promising career beckons.
They, and the remaining troupe, display enthusiasm, vigour and endeavour in what is a significant production during which there is action aplenty. The first act of 75 minutes and the second of 65 minutes cover no less than nine time periods and, as I just intimated, much happens to Shepard and his cohorts. The signature tune Merrily We Roll Along is a real crowd pleaser, while I also took a shine to Our Time. I appreciated a number of the costume and lighting choices, especially in bringing the hippy era to life.
Sondheim may be better known for the likes of West Side Story (for which he was the lyricist), A Little Night Music, Gypsy (again, lyrics alone) and Into the Woods), but the impact of Merrily We Roll Along should not be underestimated. Plaudits go to director Pip Mushin and Philip Setton for his musical direction.
With a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes including interval, Merrily We Roll Along is playing at the Phoenix Theatre in Elwood until September 5th. For bookings, go to www.jymtheatre.com.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television