Earlier this year, Artform gifted us with a moving production of The Last Five Years. Now the same south-east London amateur theatrical production company has brought one more time travelling piece to Catford’s Broadway Studio Theatre. This one is Merrily We Roll Along, the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical which infamously flopped and closed after 16 performances in its original Broadway production.
Both musicals focus in on struggling American artists trying to make it in an unforgiving business and the difficulty in navigating relationships over time. Both productions feel poles apart, the former being tender and contemporary and the latter could arguably be characterised as a period piece. But be rest assured, Artform have pulled off yet another fantastic musical.
“When did the road behind disappear? Where did you let things slip out of gear? How did you ever get to be here?” These are the central questions we are faced with in Merrily and the chorus sing these rhetorical questions in unison as the musical transitions through its scenes.
Our starting point is 1976. Franklin Shepard (Johan Samuelsson), Mary Flynn (Ros Philp) and Charlie Kringas (Brett McHargue) are lifelong friends who are united in their love for theatre and music. But whilst in their forties, seemingly irreparable cracks have appeared in the trio’s relationship. To know how exactly we got here, the musical rolls back the clock. In each new scene, a bit more is revealed about the informative events which transpired in the preceding years to get there.
The musical largely orbits around composer Franklin Shepard and how his self-destructive pursuit of sex, money and success inevitably creates collateral damage. Samuelsson delivers a fine performance in the demanding lead role and has a solid voice to match. Although Frank is central to the plot, in this production it’s hard not to let your attention gravitate to the women who find themselves caught in Frank’s web. This is thanks to the outstanding performances delivered by our leading women.
Ros Philp’s portrayal of the Mary Flynn is layered and helps anchor the show. As Mary has endured years of unreciprocated love for Frank, she carries perhaps the most emotional baggage of all the characters. But with Philp’s performance, you lament her hopeless longing and it never feels over-sentimental nor cloy. The flirtatious trouble maker Gussie, Frank’s lover, is jolted to life by Danielle Dowsett. Dowsett is a force of nature in this role and commands the stage during every scene she’s in, whilst landing some of the most entertaining lines of the evening. Finally Beth, Frank’s first sweet wife, played by Ros Killpack has the voice of an angel. In a supporting role which could have easily been overlooked, her rendition of ‘Not a Day Goes By’ and especially its reprise, are easily the two most stirring moments of the night.
They say that Sondheim’s music is notoriously difficult and Merrily is no exception. There a lot of lyrics and precise music queues not just for the principal characters but for every single member of the sizeable cast. In ‘Franklin Shepard Inc’ or ‘Now You Know’, a missed beat here or a forgotten lyric there unfortunately pulls more unwanted focus than desirable. The bustling band, who are placed on an upper tier of the stage, are also put through their paces in performing this challenging score, yet they manage to hold their own.
By the time we arrive at the stinging finale, the audience are uniquely positioned to realise that life isn’t so merry after all. This is not a light and breezy musical, and the steady stream of songs may not be to everyone’s taste. But certainly for fans of Sondheim, know that when this production is in its element, it really shines.
Cast: Franklin Shepard: Johan Samuelsson, Charley Kringas: Brett McHargue, Mary Flynn: Ros Philp, Beth: Ros Killpack, Gussie: Danielle Dowsett, Joe Josephson: Neil Whitaker, Tyler/Ensemble: Peter Fiorini, Terry/Ensemble: Chris Arden, Jerome/Ensemble: Marston York, Ru/Ensemble: Thomas Fitzgerald, KT/Ensemble: Joanne Robinson, Scotty/Ensemble: Elaine Lewis, Dory/Ensemble: Sam Eades, Meg/Ensemble: Nikita Elash
Merrily We Roll Along will be running at the Broadway Theatre between 9 – 12 October 2019 at the time of writing.