Merrily We Roll Along was performed by Performance Preparation Academy at the Bellerby Studio Theatre, Guildford.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
It’s quite a coincidence that the two biggest flops of Stephen Sondheim’s career are being revisited at the same time with Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted nine performances on Broadway in 1964, winding down its Fringe run at the Union Theatre just as the PPA third years launch into Merrily, which came off after just 16 in 1981.
And while not even some of Sondheim’s finest work could rescue Arthur Laurents’ lumpen script in Whistle, the award-winning Maria Friedman revival of Merrily in 2012-13, first at the Menier, then in the West End at the Pinter, turned it into a belated triumph 30 years down the line.
Telling the story backwards of three young friends who develop at different rates, want different things from life, and grow apart, was too clever by half for its original audience.
Merrily has been much changed since, Sondheim weighed in with more songs and it is mainly the 1994 version that PPA director Richard Mulholland has challenged his young troops with, a far more difficult test than the Cy Coleman musical The Life with which many of the same hard-working cast were set the previous week.
The Life characters were much the same age as the performers which kept them in their comfort zone. But the vibrant confidence of youth won the day, greatly boosted by some terrific choreography and superb costumes, both the province of PPA co-founder Louise Pieri.
Frank Shepard writes songs, Charley Kringas writes lyrics, Mary Flynn writes novels: they are young, talented and full of innocent hope: 1957 is ‘Our Time’ for ‘Opening Doors’ – that’s how the show ends with the trio on an apartment roof watching Sputnik launch.
It’s the most successful scene because they are at the same stage of their lives as the students who play them, Connor Philipson, Luke Archer and Nicole Lockwood-West.
Pan back to 1976 and the start (and end) of the tale: Frank has become an in-demand Hollywood producer throwing a party in his swanky LA pad; Mary, now a theatre critic, is an embarrassing lush who makes a scene; nowhere to be seen is Charley, Frank’s lyricist when they used to make music together in the good old days.
He and Frank have has long since fallen out after a TV chat show row. On that show Charley (Archer) sings the notoriously tricky ‘Franklin Shepard Inc’ and makes the most of this witty, sarcastic number but it is Lockwood-West we most warm to.
It’s a very Jewish Mary she gives us with her flexible facial expressions and touchy-feely arms rather than the Irish one that Flynn’s name implies, but all the more endearing for that. She points her funny lines to perfection.
Philipson, fine in the later scenes, slightly undercooks the older, hugely successful Shepard. It would have worked better if he had been directed to be flashier, smarter and more at ease among the Hollywood luvvies.
The best voice belongs to Emily Day, a Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year finalist last year. She makes a grand job of the moving ‘Not a Day Goes By’. Both bites at it, the sad version of Act I and the happier one in tandem with Frank and Mary in Act II, are beautifully handled.
The show would have benefited from being mic-ed up (as was The Life the previous week). Elizabeth Lowe, as the conniving, self-absorbed actress Gussie who steals Frank and splits up his marriage, would have made a bigger impact with one; so too Tiffany Boisselle’s TV announcer, working from the back of the stage.
Tall and elegant, Lowe must be a dream to dress. She had some lovely outfits to wear. The thought that has gone in to the costumes of the ensemble is totally impressive. They sing well as a team with the OTT gurning of Daniel Law, as agent Scotty, particularly amusing.
Four parts alternate over the four days of the run to give everyone a chance to shine. Lockwood-West’s Mary was taken by Kathryn Tindall, Lowe swapped with Caitlin Swanton (Meg Kincaid), Shakira Rattray took over from Day as Beth, and Sophie Howard came on for Lizzie Brown as KT. I was sorry to miss them.
There were also two musical directors, Mary McAdam and Philip Shute, plus a simple band of three. Roping in veteran actor Dudley Rogers to play Shepard as an old man at the 2017 graduation ceremony and introduce the show is a nice touch.
Act II improves on the first for pace and fluency although being found a cushion at the interval – boy, those seats are uncomfortable! – may be influencing my judgement, but the potential is all there and any rough edges from this first night should soon be sorted.
Readers may also be interested in:
Performance Preparation Academy – The Life – Review