Making her professional debut as director, Maria Friedman’s exceptionally assured production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier is so lucid and precise that it is difficult to imagine why it was ever considered one of Sondheim’s ‘problem’ musicals.
The clean lines of Soutra Gilmour’s Bel Air apartment set provide a beautiful backdrop that is surprising in its versatility. David Hersey’s lighting subtly suggests changes of mood and time while Musical Director Catherine Jayes handles the score with intellect and impressive vigour.
In her own words, Friedman admits that “casting is ninety percent of a director’s work,” and nowhere is this more evident than in Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell who play the triumvirate of Frank, Charley & Mary. Their inverted stories make up the plot of Merrily which runs backwards in time from 1976 to 1957. Russell in particular impresses with a layered, nuanced performance. While lacking a showstopping number like Franklin Sheppard, Inc. – performed with dazzling dexterity by Humbley – she is nonetheless the emotional heart of the show, and the clarity of her through-line is handled with precision and skill.
Friedman has indelibly stamped her mark on Merrily in an impressive directing debut.
There is not, in fact, a weak link in the cast; Josefina Gabrielle vamps off with some of the best lines; in the ensemble, Zizi Strallen and Ashley Robinson are particularly noticeable, while Clare Foster threatens to steal the show with a heart-wrenching rendition of Not A Day Goes By. Like all the best moments in the show, it is when Friedman allows the simple truth of Sondheim’s lyrics to shine through that the production really takes flight. One of our foremost interpreters of Sondheim, it is this extraordinary skill that Friedman has brought to this production. If she prefers to dig deepest into the musical numbers and eschew the same precision in some of the staging then we are richer for the depths she unearths in the solos, duets and trios; this detail more than makes up for the broad strokes of the large company numbers.
Sondheim’s subtle and intelligent score is one of his most accessible and affecting, full of pathos and wit. The final scene on a rooftop in 1957 is poignant and heartbreaking. In casting Frank, Mary & Charley as older actors playing down rather than the usual younger actors playing up, Friedman has forsaken the usual final image of hopeful youth but given us something much deeper – an extraordinary visual juxtaposition of optimism with cynicism. Even as they sing of their hopes for the future, we have not only seen all they will become, but we see it; their future in their present. Friedman has indelibly stamped her mark on Merrily in an impressive directing debut. This production deserves to roll along, merrily and proudly.
**** 4 stars
Runs until 23rd February