Merrily We Roll Along (Ad Astra) – theatre review

I’ve often commented to people that it is much more difficult to write a glowing review than something at the other end of the spectrum. This experience makes putting together a review of Ad Astra’s Merrily We Roll Along a daunting task for I fear I may have insufficient superlatives for the company’s first musical production.

The fact that this is the 1981 American musical’s Queensland premiere speaks to its complicated history. Despite having music and lyrics by one of the foremost figures in musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim, with book by George Furth, the show’s premiere on Broadway (with a cast almost exclusively of teenagers and young adults) was met with notoriously negative reviews, only to close soon thereafter. Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the intricate musical, tells the story of how three friends’ lives and friendship change over two decades. It focuses particularly on Franklin Shepard (Stephen Hirst), a talented composer of musicals who, over those 20 years, abandons his friends and songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies.

Like the play on which it is based, the show’s story moves in reverse chronology, beginning in 1976 at the friends’ lowest moment. And so, we open to its titular number provoking contemplation of ‘how did you get to be here?’ In follow of the tried-and-true literary trope, we hear a lot about ‘That Frank’ from his friends and A-list hangers-on, and, still before he opens his mouth, seeing his entry to his own self-described formula movie opening night event, with a tray of white powder party favours.

The party, at miserable Frank’s California home, shared with second wife, Broadway legend Gussie Carnegie (Jordan Twigg) is a world away from his happy beginnings, with devoted and inseparable friends Charles Charley Kringas (an impressive Alex Watson), once lyricist, now a Pulitzer Prize winning, once in a generation playwright and novelist-turned-theatre critic Mary Flynn (Natasha Veselinovic). Unfortunately, long-term collaborators Frank and Charley are now far from being the next Rodgers and Hammerstein as they were once lauded, and soon we find out why as, with a guiding side-of-stage display of polaroid pictures tracing through key moments of their shared lives, we are in-turn taken back from 1976 to 1957 to where things began for Frank, Charley and Mary as the ambitious movers and shapers they are yet to be, meeting for the first time on the roof of an apartment building in New York City… when anything is possible.

Effectively tripping the story periodically back in time is a challenge complicated by the small space of the company’s 40-seat theatre. Under Tim Hill’s tight direction, however, transitions are seamless, with ensemble cast members switching in and out of minor roles without distraction. Stage design, like costumes, especially reflects its initial era of 1970s in its raw and natural warm tones. And Tess Hill’s choreography creates some memorable visuals, such as when a black and white art deco-ed ensemble of elegant 1962 partygoers moves almost as one aesthetic. Indeed, things only really drag in a somewhat superfluous small nightclub revue number ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’, celebrating America’s new first family, whose only real function appears to be to share of how Frank met his first, sweat and wholesome (but still strong) wife Beth (an empathetic Heidi Enchelmaier).

Hirst, Watson and Veselinovic work together with an obvious chemistry to easily convey the camaraderie of Frank, Charley and Mary, in a “Singing in the Rain” trio type of way. Hirst provides the requisite layers to the story’s complicated protagonist, weaving charm into the self-centredness at the core of his character, and Veselinovic’s nuanced reactions reveal much about what is going on behind Mary’s caustic wit. Veselinovic’s vocals are also excellent, as showcased in Mary’s ‘Old Friends – Like It Was’ reminder to Charlie of how the trio’s friendship was once the cornerstone of their lives (and hint as to her decades-long unrequited love for Frank). It is Watson, however, who provides the show’s musical highlight with his faultless performance of Charley’s incredibly difficult patter song nervous breakdown reaction during a television interview. His in-song slaughter of Frank upon crushing discovery that he is set to sign a three-picture deal, but also honest reflection of how he misses their friendship, is an absolute showstopper.

There are no weak links within the polished performances from a cast (also including Chris Kellett, Chelsea Burton, Liam O’Byrne and Edward Hill) that could easily take its place on stage at QPAC. Twigg is wonderful as the hyperbolic, insincere and really quite horrible Gussie, playing the red-lipped vixen prima donna with relish and, in early scenes, in a manner that by proxy endears us even more to Mary. And her Act Two opener, where, a 1964 Gussie is performing onstage during the opening night of Frank and Charley’s first Broadway show “Musical Husbands”, showcases her strong vocal presence.

A rich volume from all singers enlivens Sondheim’s robust score, providing a uniquely powerful, but still intimate, musical experience. Although it contains no memorable big hits, Sondheim’s complex, cohesive score is full of splendid orchestrations, delightful delivered by on-stage musicians, Musical Director Ben Murry and Lucas D. Lynch on keys and Peter Lavrencic on drums. And though the sounds of keys feature most obviously, providing rhythm to numbers like ‘Old Friend’, there are still opportunities for the drums to shine, building the anticipation of the ‘It’s A Hit’ moment of assessment that all artists live for.

For one of Sondheim’s most seemingly unassuming works, Merrily We Roll Along represents a satisfying tick of all the musical boxes in its reflection on the passing of time. Furth’s book is well-crafted, full of foreshadowing in throw away pleasantries and alike dialogue that mean so much more given the reverse chronological structure’s provision of immediate shared hindsight. And its combination with Sondheim’s songs results in a sweetly melancholic celebration of art and artists, but also friendship and loyalty, especially through male characters refreshingly opening expressions of the platonic love and affection felt for each other and their association. Ad Astra have put together a flawless production of local cast and creatives that leans into the musical’s poignancy and nostalgia not for an era so much as longing back to more youthful days before long term friendships became complicated by life. And all of these factors make it a must see show for musical lovers.

Merrily We Roll Along is at Ad Astra, 57 Misterton Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane until 8 June 2024

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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