Theatre in Wales

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Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama- Merrily We Roll Along , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , April 4, 2005
Stephen Sondheim’s penchant for irony reflected here in the title of this, first time out failure that became Musical of the Year when it was revised for the West End Stage some ten years later, is very much part of the plot. There’s nothing very merry in this story that begins at the end and works its way backwards until “there’s so much stuff to sing!...”

It’s 1976, Franklin Sheppard is rich and famous; he’s made the big time! But he has paid a big price. His musical soul! His close friends! And the wife he really loved, unlike the three or four that came after. His latest movie success is being celebrated by his ‘friends’ at his swish Bel Air pad, their true thoughts and flatteries come out in the full irony of one of the lesser remarkable ensemble numbers That Frank. Frank’s close friend of over twenty years, the one who has always loved him but he just didn’t notice, Mary Flynn is in a drunken despair. She’s ordered out of the flat by Frank’s current wife, Gussie, who then orders herself out of Frank’s life after attacking his latest mistress. Merrily we roll along!

The story works it way back in stages, separated by cleverly scored transition pieces that make use of the Sondheim dissonance to change the mode and pick up on other numbers in the show. Eventually we get back to the age of innocence: 1957, Frank with his close friends and eventual collaborators, Mary, Charley Kringas and Charlie’s wife to be, Beth are up on the roof looking out at the first Sputnik circling the earth, young and asserting it’s Our Time “and there’s so much stuff to sing!… But Sondheim doesn’t go in for ‘happy ever after endings’.

Mark Sullivan has a great shot at holding it all together but he’s just too nice a guy. I remember the warm delight of his recent Irish brogued Vanya . Maybe it was by not using his natural accent that he didn’t quite embrace the charisma that the part demands. However he had a good tuneful voice and moved things backward/forward at a good pace.

Overall I didn’t feel that the cast were able to quite capture the depth of conviction to bring the characters fully to life. They didn’t seem to be showing us what they felt deep down but only what they saw on the surface. The dissonance in the music had spread itself into the design and into the directing, into the whole atmosphere of the show. From time to time it did break into life. Sullivan and Robert Vernon as Charley bring off some great moments of comedy in the TV interview that brings their friendship to an end. Caryl Morgan’s Mary Flynn is a bit sloppy but she does bring a great deal of sincerity to the role and we can see that her love for Frank is very real. A point she makes well in her plaintive rendering of Like It Was.

Zahra Ahmadi is a lively and bitchy Gussie coldly throwing over one husband for another as the mood suits her. She certainly makes it clear that there is only one good reason to be married to her. Husband Joe gives Leighton Kyle a good chance to display the steely indifference of a theatrical agent. Emily Evans makes the most of her role as TV interviewer caught up in the on screen fight between Frank and Charley and with a quick change of hair-style, along with Andrew Mills brings a nice sense of concerned maturity as Beth’s parents unwillingly allowing her early marriage to Frank to take place. How right they were! ‘Now You Know’.

A Sondheim musical demands the same dgree of acting skill as a major drama. I felt that the cast could have been given more help in putting more flesh onto the bones of these multi-dimensional characters and a touch more zip added to the production to drive the irony merrily home.

Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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