Theatre in Wales

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Something is Stirring…

Stephen Sondheim

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Merrily We Roll Along , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru , May 20, 2012
Stephen Sondheim by Clwyd Theatr Cymru-  Merrily We Roll Along Director Nikolai Foster opens his large-stage production of Sondheim's 1981 musical on a sober note. Half the cast, in academic gowns, are on stage. The remainder are scattered among the audience. Simon Thomas' Franklin Shepard lopes on stage to address the pupils of the school he has left twenty-five years before. His speech sags and the action switches back in time. The black gowns and mortar boards vanish and underneath- the scene is a hot shot party- the dress is all “Boogie Nights”, floral shirts and long pointy collars. The production flies.

“Merrily We Roll Along” is musical theatre’s most celebrated failure-turned-to-success. The first production had it all, director and choreographer at loggerheads, a lead actor fired, constant design and costume changes, preview audiences walking out. Now hardly a year goes by when it is not in production somewhere. The reasons for that first failure are as clear as are those for its current allure.

It is intricate in form. The structural depth of the book, George Furth from Kaufmann and Hart, reveals itself only in the closing twenty minutes. A caustic misanthropy stalks the first act. A leading lady, Rebecca Lock's black-clothed Mary Flynn, makes her first appearance as a socially excruciating, rolling alcoholic.

There are three main reasons for its success. Thematically its tale of friendship lost for brief passion, artistic integrity traded for gold, is more pertinent than ever. The book has wit. Of the composer turned Hollywood player: “the only work he does is working the room.” “Which comes first?” asks Amira Matthews' oleaginous TV anchor “the words or the music?” “Generally, the contract” drawls Matt Cross' Charley Kringas. His big solo number- spurred on by Shaun Lock and Fraiser Patterson on saxophones- earns applause mid-scene. Sondheim’s score also has one of the best love songs ever.

The action is nearly all played out in the public zone, at parties, a TV studio, a nightclub, a court. The price of celebrity is the sacrifice of privacy. Eyes are always watching. A desperate inventor pleads for money. A stranger thrusts a script at star Gussie. Lucy Williamson starts, or ends in this chronology, as plain Shirley Malinski, a tight-suited typist on the make. By the nineteen-eighties she is lynx-eyed, seductive, venomous Gussie Carnegie with Medusa ringlets and a squirrel's twitch.

The young Frank tries to articulate his art. Music, for him is sound and feeling. The last scenes attain a depth of emotional impact. Verity Rushworth's Beth has already sung “Not a Single Day”. Sondheim cleverly brings it back for the wedding scene. But this time Rebecca Lock joins in. Frank's back is turned against her, a poignant image of a love that is never to be fulfilled.

Nikolai Foster gives a nod or two to the movies. When Darren Bennett's Joe makes his last side-stage appearance he is Paul Muni in flight from the chain gang. Beth, Frank and Charlie, their little fingers interlocked in friendship, make a move onto a sideboard that is homage to the Kelly-O'Connor-Reynolds trio in “Singing in the Rain”.

The show's publicity speaks of the difference of the big stage. The expanse of the Anthony Hopkins space is another world from the Watermill, which staged it in 2008. The space allows a physical energy, but one of the most telling images is Frank alone at his piano. The design, a wrap-around metal gallery, is a metaphor for enclosure and imprisonment. But once there it has to be used. Rebecca Lock is a tremendous Mary with her social gaucherie, her awkwardness of gait, the clothes that are never quite right, the acid tongue of the novelist turned drama critic. The central number for the show is her tribute to friendship “Old Friends.” It is beautifully delivered but needs to be sung up close. Here it comes from far away.

The last scene, a New York rooftop, needs closeness and intimacy. The men are far back, and have to clatter down the stairs. Happily, the trio of actors seize the scene once they are together. “Something is stirring/ Shifting ground” begins Simon Thomas. The three actors slough off all the experience of the quarter-century to come. The eyes are bright, the faces radiant with hope of the future. “Yesterday has done...It's our turn/ coming's up to us now to show” run Sondheim's lyrics, an anthem for every generation of twenty year olds.

The occasional line like “I'm Charley/ I'm Frank/ I really thought I stank” does not have the right emphasis of rhythm. No costume designer credit for the production; the clothing for the 1962 scene is colourful but looks a couple of years premature. These are small quibbles for a moving production that won, and deserved, a cheering audience.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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