Thursday, October 24, 2013

REVIEW: London's Merrily We Roll Along

Review of the Digital Theatre, CinemaLive film presentation of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along. Filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London's West End.  A Fathom Events showing on Wednesday, October 23, 2013.  Starring Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell, with Clare Foster, Josefina Gabrielle, Glyn Kerslake and Zizi Strallen.  Production directed by Maria Friedman.  2 hours, 50 minutes, including a brief documentary, and one intermission.

Grade: B-

I went into the screening of Merrily We Roll Along with the highest of hopes.  After all, this production received across-the-board raves when it opened on the West End.  Sondheim himself has given it his blessing as "the best production of [the show] he'd ever seen."  Don't get me wrong.  This is a very good presentation of a frequently troubling work; director Maria Friedman has worked hard to clear it up for newcomers to the piece, and is quite successful.  But, perhaps because I've never really had a problem understanding the backwards story, and I actually enjoy that it starts in the darkest part of these people's lives, all of that clarity caused me to enjoy it less that I had hoped for.  No new revelations or "ah ha" moments for this theatre-goer.  In fact, with all the effort put in here to make the show work for the masses, it actually pointed out an inherent flaw and really underscored issues with less than ideal casting.

When the lights came up at intermission, I had two overwhelming feelings.  First, the role of Franklin Shepard really suffers if his charisma and charm never peek through the wall of despair and humbling sadness the character feels as the show starts.  It is hard enough to like this jerk at the start, and without so much as a glance at the appeal this man has makes it impossible to feel for him when he admits he hates his life, wishes it was over and that he is just acting happy to get through day-to-day.  Despite his good looks and nice singing voice (nice, not exceptional) Mark Umbers does everything right (right, not exceptional) but with almost no charisma jumping out at me off the big screen.  He is much better in act two, but I still never quite got why his Frank was drawing in everyone around him like moths to a flame.

"It's a Hit!"

Second, and even more troubling, is the glaring imbalance between songs and scenes.  This is not my first viewing of this show, but this is the first time that I really noticed just how much talking and time there is between songs.  Talk about too much exposition!  I know they talk a lot about the past and where they all are now to clarify things, but really, just how much does the average attendee at a Sondheim show need done for him or her?  And I also never realized how long the song "That Frank" goes on and on.  Until now, that had been my favorite addition to the show.  Now, not so much.

Act two, on the other hand, comes on like gangbusters and never lets up.  True, the characters are increasingly happy and the pieces really fall into place.  You know where these people are headed and they don't, which makes you feel for them.  And the act is packed with the best songs in the show, including "Not a Day Goes By," "It's a Hit," "Opening Doors," and one of my favorite Sondheim songs in his entire canon, "Our Time." But Friedman's staging is also better here, sharp and consistently clever.  This is no small fete on the minuscule (and relatively unattractive) set designed by Soutra Gilmour.  (Her costumes are much wittier and very time specific.)

Josefina Gabrielle (center) and "The Blob"

Despite a clunky Southern accent (does everyone in the world think unsophisticated Americans are backwoods hicks?) forced upon the character Beth, and a completely miscast child as Frank, Jr., the supporting cast is uniformly terrific.  Clare Foster as Beth sings beautifully and is a good actress, accent not withstanding.  Zizi Strallen exudes a heady mix of innocence and sexuality as Meg, Frank's latest affair.  And Glyn Kerslake does fine work as Joe, devolving from homeless guy to enthusiastic new producer.  I have to say that this is the first time I've noticed any Joe so much. But it is Josefina Gabrielle that really stands out among the supporting cast.  As Gussie, she gives an incredibly detailed performance, with each movement and each key line emphasized just so, so that we can remember the future as her past comes into the light.  She is brilliant whether she's being a bitter, booze-fueled bitch, a glamorous Broadway star (including a number where she seems to be channeling Ruthie Henschall in Chicago) or a timid up-and-coming gal Friday.

Frank, Charley and Mary
Umbers, Humbley, Russell

But the real find here is the casting of Damian Humbley as Charley and Jenna Russell as Mary.  Humbley is superb, and watching him devolve from crushed wallflower to the thoughtful, opinionated best friend everyone deserves is very satisfying.  His "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is funny, yet biting, sad, yet bitter, and excellently delivered.  Throughout the show I kept hoping for some chemistry between him and Mr. Umbers.  There isn't much, really, making it all the more remarkable that Humbley is so damned good.  However, it is Ms. Russell that delivers the evening's finest performance.  Every look, glance, bit of business - literally everything she does reveals a deep understanding of this complex woman.  Bitter as a drunk, jealous with unrequited love, and the ultimate best friend.  She is BY FAR the best Mary I've yet seen.  The excellence of these two almost makes up for a lacking Franklin.

I can tell a production of Merrily We Roll Along has really affected me when I get a sentimental mistiness during "Our Time."  I was pretty close. But not close enough...



  1. The cinema that I attended was plagued with constant "error" messages throughout the show, and we were told at the end that it was happening at all theaters. Did anyone else have this experience?

  2. We had no such problems where I saw it.

  3. Thanks for posting your take on this filmed version of the West End production of Merrily We Roll Along. I was browsing the internet this morning to see if anyone felt similar to me after I saw it in a movie theater in LA last night. Like you, I went into the event broadcast with every expectation of loving it. I’ve seen the show performed on stage about a half dozen times over the years, including what I thought was an excellent production in the 1994 Off-Broadway incarnation (with Malcolm Gets as Franklin). But this new West End production, for me, was pretty flawed in ways I wouldn’t have expected. That said, it certainly didn’t approach the depths of sort of “ruining” the piece. It was just so “off” for me in many important areas…most of which probably are connected to Ms. Friedman’s direction and choices.

    I completely agree with your opinion of Mark Umbers version of Franklin Shepard. Entirely lost is any sense of his charisma and vision. For me, the character only works if everyone in his universe can’t help but fall in love with him…and he’s a character that seems to be unable to resist such love. Umbers plays him as if he’s just a super nice guy, a “pleaser” who can’t understand why all of these people who once loved him are now so upset. He’s more of a salesman than he is a brooding musical genius.

    Also importantly lost in this version is any real sense that the three “old friends” have any real connection. I didn’t catch any sense of chemistry among them. Given the unique view of the performances that a filmed version provides (great closeups), I would have thought the performances would have been loaded with the kinds of subtle gestures and looks that old, dear friends give each other. There seem to be little regret at what connection was lost among these three. And in the second act, I saw just as little to suggest the close bonds in the scenes where their friendship should have been the strongest.

    I agree that from a technical standpoint the singing of Damian Humbley (as Charlie) in his showcase piece, “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” was fine. However, for me, it was also absent of much of the necessary connection to the guy sitting next to him on stage at the time. It was as if he were singing the song in a solo cabaret performance. For me, that song works because Charlie increasingly needles Franklin during it to the point of explosion. You need to feel as if it is the sort of public humiliation and even betrayal that would cause someone to instantly “unfriend” you. But the way it was performed by Mr. Humbley, it was almost just a friendly roast of Franklin. Didn’t work for me.

    Switching gears, we were all forced to sit through an incredibly long intro packaged piece before the performance started…a sort of behind-the-scenes look/trailer that included WAY too much actual footage from the musical. There were audible cringes from the audience during this horrible set-up piece. But perhaps the one important thing I learned from it was that the director was once in the cast. I’m guessing she played Gussie…because this version of the show almost seemed to be more about Gussie than it was about Franklin, Mary and Charlie. I agree that Josefina Gabrielle stood out in this cast. I’d almost go so far as to say she stole the show. And that suggests for me a complete imbalance in the direction of the show. If your fourth lead steals a show, then you’re doing something wrong. In none of the previous versions of this show that I’ve seen performed has the Gussie character ever stood out like this. Surely some of that is due to simply a great performance by Ms. Gabrielle. But it just seemed “off” in terms of direction and focus for the musical.

    (Continuing this comment in the next post because of limits on character count for comments…)

  4. (Comments from above continued…)

    In contrast, Jenna Russell’s “Mary” didn’t work for me. She may have the most “Broadway” of any of the lead voices in this cast, but the main thing you need from this character is to sell this life-long love and infatuation with Franklin. Instead, I seemed to get more of a sense that she’s just constantly annoyed by him…in a sort of a love-hate way. Her best scene was the performance of “Not a Day Goes By.” It’s the only place in this production where one gets enough of a glimpse at the genuine feelings she harbors…feelings so apparent that everyone around them ALWAYS notices and constantly reminds her about how in love she is with Franklin. We needed less drunk wisecracker from this Mary and more “hopeless in love.”

    The staging was also funky for me. The set not only WAS small…but it FELT small looking at it for over two hours. The choice to entirely close off what was essentially an apartment interior set created problems in some key scenes for me. Most notably, the final rooftop scene just was odd with these windows in the background and characters entering through a door. That scene should feel more expansive…because the characters are feeling that limitless possibility of their unknown futures. Instead it looked and felt like “empty apartment.” Of course, that scene also fell short because the video feed went out for about three minutes in our theatre…so I listened to most of “Our Time” in the total dark. But another scene that was oddly staged was the one surrounding “It’s a Hit!” We see a stage curtain as the main backdrop in this scene, suggesting the characters are standing directly behind the scenes as Gussie performs Franklin and Charlie’s show. Yet, to stage right there’s a door labeled “Stage Door” that suggests they’re standing outside the theater. Which is it? Seems like a pretty silly staging miss for a production this major.

    As you noted, the American accents in this production ranged from very good (Mr. Humbley and Ms. Gabrielle) to simply cartoonish (Clare Foster’s “Beth”). The older woman playing the role of Franklin’s agent was perhaps the one character allowed to have a British accent in the production…and yet even that was a bad choice because that character sings a line in “Now You Know” about American baseball (“the side is retired, so we’ll start another inning”)…an expression that an older British woman would likely never use. With another composer’s musical perhaps this kind of thing is just a silly throw-away inconsistency. But with Sondheim, where every word matters, it’s yet another sloppy directorial choice by Ms. Friedman. And I won’t waste much time on the problems with the casting choice of Franklin Jr., but the kid appears in two scenes that take place a couple of years apart…and yet he looks exactly the same.

    It has been at least five years since I last saw a stage production of this musical. But my lasting impression of this particular Sondheim piece has always been that it was quite underrated and underappreciated. It has been one of my favorites. But the way this production was staged, directed and performed has left me seeing way too many of the show’s flaws. And maybe that’s the lasting reason why I’m disappointed in this West End version. But the nice thing with musical theater is that there’s always a new version around the corner, and perhaps the next team will be able to do to this show what was recently done to almost entirely reinvent and improve “Pippin.”


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