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...