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Merrily We Roll Along
Soutra Gilmour's elegant set has a curved wall, a staircase to one side and a wide window and beyond, the starlit sky. In 1976, we see Franklin Sheppard (a tall and handsome Mark Umbers) initially serious but later in party mood in his Californian beach house, until Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell) rains on his parade. Franklin is flirting with his very young star Meg Kincaid (Zizi Strallen) much to the annoyance of his second wife, Gussie Carnegie (Josefina Gabrielle). “The plot thins,” quips Mary and she relates the feud between old friends and song collaborators, Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) and Franklin.
Merrily We Roll Along is constructed backwards as each change of scene takes us back a few more years after Mary has said, “If I could go back to the beginning,” as she “blames the way it is, on the way it was.” This scene in 1973 is set in the NBC Studio in New York where Frank and Charley are being interviewed. Lyricist Charley's solo number “Franklin Sheppard Inc.” wonderfully summarises his problem with Frank's ambition. Frank needs money to pay for his divorce from his first wife and wants to go into movies. Back five years to 1968 to Mary, Charley and Frank working together in “Old Friends” and then “Growing Up” from Frank and the musical star and his second wife, Gussie Carnegie. The final scene of Act One is set in 1967 in the Manhattan Courthouse where the Sheppards are getting divorced. Frank's wife Beth (Clare Foster) in a really heartbreaking song “Not a Day Goes By” sings about his infidelity and her love for him. Their son Frank Junior (Noah Miller/Tommy Rodger/Joseph West) is led away by his grandparents.
1964 sees Frank's early flirtation with Gussie in Frank and Charley's Paris set musical, “Musical Husbands” with Gussie vamping it up to the backdrop of Montmatre and the Moulin Rouge. “It's a Hit” has all the anticipation and excitement of mounting a Broadway show and getting a good audience reaction. 1962 concentrates on Gussie's marriage to Joe Josephson (Glyn Kerslake) with op art black and white clothing and an audience of sycophants, called The Blob, moving together. In “Good Thing Going” Frank and Charley's early song writing partnership is evoked with a pretty song. In 1960 Charlie, Frank. Beth and the pianist wittily present the Kennedy clan in song in “Bobbie, Jackie and Jack” from their revue Frankly Frank. 1957 to 59 sees Frank's first marriage as he meets Beth and back to the beginning 1957 has Frank and Charley on a New York City rooftop planning their future.
Merrily We Roll Along has a sadness, a bittersweet feel because with each meeting we already know the sad outcomes, the broken friendship, the broken marriage. The characterisations are very fine and there is excellent acting as well as singing from the cast. Jenna Russell's Mary is full of sardonic wit, her sorrow being a candle held for Frank. I warmed to Damian Humbley's self effacing Charley and despised Josefina's selfish Gussie. Mark Umbers as Frank through the draw of Gussie is unable to save his marriage and becomes estranged from his son.
Although we are told that Merrily We Roll Along flopped on its first outing in 1981, Maria Friedman has cast this fascinating production so well it is easy to believe in the characters and feel the emotional punch of their stories. The show was revised in 1992 for the Leicester Haymarket which starred Maria Friedman and it is that version showing here. Many of the tunes are very pretty, the sentiments sincere and the lyrics have wit but the success of her charming show is in casting experienced and older actors who go back 19 years with a relaxed ease and genuine feeling.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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