What a year - Hair, West Side Story and now Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. From the 300 seat Geoff Gibbs Theatre to the 1100 seater at the Regal to the intimate confines of the Roundhouse (fast becoming my favourite theatre venue) WAAPA’s third year musical theatre students have been outstanding. In the words of Sondheim himself, “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few.”
Indeed, the story of three talented friends who rise from humble beginnings to achieve their artistic dreams on Broadway, in publishing, and beyond is an apt one. This graduating class is in the early phase of realising their own dreams and the talent on display bodes well for the future. But Merrily We Roll Along posts warning signs along the way about how ambition and expediency can erode artistic integrity and, perhaps more importantly, alienate those who matter most - the friends, loved ones and collaborators who helped make the journey possible.
The dramatic conceit here is that the story is told in reverse chronological order. We see these characters at their worst at the beginning of the musical before exploring how they arrived at such an emotionally barren place. When the show first opened on Broadway in 1981 it was a flop. It’s almost hard to believe as the score is excellent, the lyrics witty and perceptive, and there’s surely a resonance for anyone who has harboured an artistic dream of some sort. The structure is complex but not prohibitively so as we move backwards from 1976 to eventually land in 1957 (a year I should have realised the significance of) where the final scene is beautifully constructed and thematically perfect. It signals a time where anything was possible, where ideas could change the world, where artists could make the papers and musicals were popular and could raise important themes. A time when three people meet who will become friends, collaborators, and take the world by storm... but at what cost?
This is why the reverse timeline works – there is such idealism and hope in the final sequences of the production that we largely forgive where these characters ended up. That they fail in life by becoming so successful in their chosen professions is also down to the sort of human frailties we can easily identify with.
The three friends, Composer (and subsequent Hollywood producer) Franklin Shepard, lyricist Charley Kringas, and writer/critic Mary Flynn are played by Jack Van Staveren, Ben Adams, and Rebecca Hetherington respectively. Van Staveren is excellent as the one who craves success and fame as he chases first Broadway then Hollywood. Along the way he loses his wife Beth (Sophie Cheeseman) and ends up marrying Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Chloe Wilson) who was enamoured of his musical talent. I have to admit it’s such a likeable performance that I never really felt he was the ‘villain’ in the early going. Adams is the perfect foil and has a highlight moment during Franklin Shepard, Inc. as Charley expresses his disappointment and anger at how Franklin has sold out for the money thus ending their friendship. The two are convincing as friends and long-time collaborative partners which makes their falling out (retrospectively) more potent.
But the standout for me is Hetherington who gets to play the faithful friend in love with Franklin and who wears her heart on her sleeve even trashing the opening sequence party in his honour with some harsh home truths. Not only is her acting impressive but vocally she shines, particularly during Not A Day Goes By (Reprise) as Mary comes to terms with the fact she will never be with Franklin as he marries Beth.
Of the supporting cast, Chloe Wilson plays the diva Gussie with great confidence and sass. There was a moment in the opening sequence where she slipped (on strewn lettuce) and fell hard to the audible gasps of the audience but didn’t miss a beat as she picked herself up, blood nose and all, and confronted the newest object of her husband’s affections, Meg (Miranda Macpherson). If anything, it added to the drama of the moment.
Sophie Cheeseman plays Beth with a southern accent and trusting innocence that is charming but always destined for tears and she is great with the young child performer Sebastian Coe who plays Frank Junior. Nick Eynaud comes into his own as Gussie’s husband Joe Josephson the further we go back in time. He has an amusing moment telling Franklin and Charley they need to write more hummable tunes, the reason Sondheim wrote Merrily in the first place in response to critics of his work. The rest of the cast is, as is to be expected, strong vocally and look terrific in an assortment of costumes appropriate to the different time periods.
After the big, elaborate musicals of the last few days over in Melbourne this show was a pleasant reminder that a stripped back production such as this in an intimate setting with talented performers and musicians can be just as entertaining and memorable. And yes, Mister Sondheim, I was tapping my feet more than once!
Directed by Jason Langley, Musical Director David King, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with a Book by George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along stars WAAPA's third year musical theatre students and has six more shows until 30 August at The Roundhouse Theatre.