NODA review of Merrily We Roll Along

By Richard Fitt on 12th June 2015

Sharnbook Mill Theatre are a group with a high reputation and high expectations to live up to. I was therefore intrigued to find out how they tacked a show, albeit by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, which when launched in 1981, lasted just 16 performances on Broadway and ended the partnership between Sondheim and Harold Prince. ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ has rarely been performed since and even less by amateurs. I, like most theatre goers have never seen it done before. The answer was of course bravely, confidently and with gusto.

It is easy with hindsight to see why Broadway quickly lost interest, it is a complicated narrative told backwards, beginning in 1976 and ending back in 1957 and tells the story of rise to fame of three young talents, and the price they pay for success. To follow the plot fully however I did leave the theatre feeling I needed to see it again to fully appreciate the story. It also lacks that essential ingredient of a successful musical, at least one great stand-alone number that transcends the theatre itself. Not something of course for which even the greats can legislate.

That said, the three leads were quite simply exemplary, and carried the show with great confidence. David Russell as Franklin Shepard, is both a great singer and a consummate actor, and was more than ably matched by Lester Cooke and Annette Codrinton as Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn respectively. Most of the songs are narrative and required considerable acting skills as well as emotional delivery to get them across. It was soon apparent that in the hands of these three it was never going to be a problem. They owned the stage and held the audience’s attention without so much as blip.

Kaye Stevens as Gussie Carnegie (Frank’s 2nd wife) was the perfect scheming, climber who dominated Frank at will, well contrasted by the more innocence and understated performance of Lauren Bain as Beth, Frank’s first wife. Both performances perfectly captured the mood of their respective periods of Frank’s life.

Colin Woolmer as impresario, Joe Josephson, puffed suitably away on his Havana cigar (unlit in this modern anti-smoking era), carrying the part with much aplomb. Nalina Young was well portrayed as the typical US TV News Interviewer, suitably expressional as Charley and Frank’s relationship came apart on live TV! Nice touch.

A particular mention of Adam Pitt who played various parts, but the standout performance was as the Newsman which was a fine comedic cameo, his ‘handing back to the studio’ was a particular delight. And also to Mark and Becky Woodham as Beth’s parents suitably capturing the concerned 1950’s attitude to their daughter’s marriage to Frank.

The rest of the supporting cast of Tim Palmer, Michael Horne, Jamie Bignall Colin Williams, Beth Williams, Amelia Newton, Angela Watts, and Elisabeth Rose, made for a splendidly slick supporting act and an excellent chorus, not a missed cue or bum note between them, very impressive. Finally a special note to young Callum Moody as Frank Jnr, who is obviously a future star in the making.

I particularly liked the simple but effective Choreography by Cara Sigsworth which set the mood of the period perfectly, complimenting the songs and action with plenty of light and shade. Very well done and proving the case of less is more, something a lot of modern adaptations of musicals fail to appreciate.

Musical director Kaye Tompkins and her orchestra are to be congratulated on a fine performance which made a slickly presented show top notch and was totally in harmony with the action, quite an achievement considering the positioning out of site above the stage.

The set by Ron Johnson and his team was designed to seamlessly move through the nine different locations. Some clever touches such as the recording studio, the multi-purpose front door and the use of the spiral staircase worked extremely well. Lighting and sound by Alex McKenzie and James Doughty suitable enhanced the excellent set

So my congratulations to director Heather Pitt and her team on making this a very professional show and giving the audience an evening’s entertainment of the highest order. My curiosity was satisfied and you gave a classy airing to a show that was quite a challenge to the audience and actors alike. A high standard maintained and a reputation enhanced.

A high class, professional and informative programme, I particularly liked the ‘A Sort of Logic’ article on the nonsense of ‘Theatre Speak!’ – Very clever. However as a publisher might I respectfully suggest that perhaps a white font on shaded blue background makes for easier reading in the gloom of an auditorium?

Finally, thanks to Ian Lawson and his front of house team for their kind hospitality and I look forward to equally high quality future shows at your excellent theatre.