As you may have read, the transfer of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along from Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory has been awarded more five star reviews than any other musical production in West End history.
I hate to be a conformist, but this is yet another one.
I saw the production’s initial run at Menier Chocolate Factory back at Christmas and enjoyed it so much I could not keep away from its West End transfer. I was knocked out by the show and its stellar cast first time round, and it has somehow gotten even better.
The show focuses around three friends over a period of twenty years. The story is told in reverse, starting out in 1976, the group torn apart by falling outs, divorce and stardom, finally ending in 1957 when the three friends met, full of the optimism of the late 1950s. This device, used in the play of the same name that the musical is based on, makes the ending all the more powerful and emotional, and left me with a lump in my throat.
The cast is faultless. Mark Umbers (who’s appearance drew a wow from the an audience member when I attended) is full of energy, but shows a darker side as Frank. Damian Humbley, as Charlie, Frank’s oldest friend, is very funny as the show’s moral centre, particularly during the exhausting number Franklin Shepherd, Inc. For me Jenna Russell was the star of the show, a writer with an unrequited love who uses humour to mask the disappointment and alcoholism that takes over her life. Her ability to make you laugh in one scene and break your heart in the next is magnificent. The three leads are ably supported by Clare Foster (who’s Not a Day Goes By brought a tear to my eye), Josefina Gabrielle (who’s act two opener is a real showstopper) and the entire ensemble cast. Special mentions go to Joanna Woodward, Kirk Patterson and Amy Ellen Richardson who were brilliant as the news team during the first act, deftly capturing the spirit of daytime television.
While the set is a little shabby and on the cheap side, Maria Friedman’s debut as a director is, in my eyes, the best musical currently running in the West End. Friedman knows the material well and it shows. While it flopped on Broadway back in 1981 (where is ran for two weeks), here, brought to life by a wonderful cast, this knockout musical gets the production it deserves. Sondheim’s score is one of his best, and the lyrics witty and also moving. I made an exception to my rule of not returning to a show for this piece, and I’m glad I did. It is a stunning show that has just got even better since its run at the Chocolate Factory. Can the Menier please bring us another stunning Sondheim this Christmas please?
Go see it while you can.
'Merrily We Roll Along' runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27 July.