Merrily We Roll Along (Watch This) – theatre review

Merrily We Roll Along is based upon a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. George Furth (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) retained the basic structures and  themes of the play but updated it to cover the period from 1957 to 1976.

The musical starts in New York in 1976 and moves backwards. It traces the lives of wealthy, jaded music composer Franklin Shepard and his two best friends, Charley and Mary. It moves 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 becomes involved with a showbiz diva. The one constant is his music, which is universally praised. The show ends with a touch of rueful irony. 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 potential price of success.

The drama and bickering in the first act give way to the promise of what may have been by the end of the second. 

Merrily We Roll Along marks the sixth production and fifth year of operation for Watch This, a grass roots, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to realising the work of Stephen Sondheim. The American composer and lyricist has a rich and enduring legacy in musical theatre. He has received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (including Lifetime Achievement), eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Laurence Olivier Award.

With a relatively spartan set, this production is hyper-energetic, if not vocally consistent. Some of the vocals appear to hit the mark more than others. Nevertheless it remains a most enjoyable and amusing show … and a salutary life lesson.

The 14-strong cast is led by Lyall Brooks as the effusive Frank, Nelson Gardner as Charley and Nicole Melloy as Mary. Brooks’ brazen theatrics and Melloy’s nuances of character really hit the mark.

To me, Merrily We Roll Along started out with the cast pushing too hard. They appeared to over-act. I warmed far more to what was on offer as the plot started to take hold. I thoroughly enjoyed the music and the way the story unfolded.

The first act of 75 minutes and the second of 65 minutes cover no less than nine time periods. During that time 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.

If one thing turns back the clock, it is the costumes and costume changes, which work a treat. The set and costume designer is Emily Collett. One small, but important, gripe about the set concerns the sharp edge on the bottom step of the staircase. It is a health and safety issue. A couple of actors all but tripped while trying to work around it.

Sondheim may be better known for the likes of West Side Story, A Little Night Music, Gypsy and Into the Woods, but the impact of Merrily We Roll Along should not be underestimated. Plaudits go to director Sara Grenfell; and to Cameron Thomas for his musical direction. 

With a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes including interval, Merrily We Roll Along is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until 15 July 2017. For bookings, go to southbanktheatre.com.au and then click onto The Lawler.

Alex First

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