Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Hayes Theatre Co., Elizabeth Bay – 26 October, 2021. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.
This is a musical that has defiantly made it onto the stage against all odds.
The original Broadway production flopped, closing after 16 performances in 1981 – quite something coming, as it does, from possibly the most famous successful living lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.
Fast forward to this production at the Hayes, which has, in the words of producer Lisa Campbell, “almost started, stopped, restarted, previewed, paused, re-rehearsed and now opened!”
The drama off stage led to this show being hotly anticipated – and it does not disappoint.
Even if you’re not in the Sondheim cult, there’s a triumph for you to behold here.
The musical subverts the usual chronology of the genre by telling its tale backwards: we begin at the end, in 1975, and move almost twenty years backwards to 1957. It’s a clever device which keeps the audience on their toes and alert, something that, perhaps in 1981 was too discombobulating for audiences to embrace. It has since inspired musicals like The Last Five Years to experiment with reverse chronology.
The beginning shows three main characters, once close-knit friends Mary and Frank, at a party in New York City. Charley is mentioned but not present due to a falling out. Their friendship bond, once celebrated amongst the trio as being uniquely intimate and honest, has frayed. This is shown with most panache by Mary’s acerbic one liners. “Do you know what I’m having?” she asks, rhetorically. “Not much fun.” Then later, a wry observation on the intermingling of the luvvies assembled: “The plot thins.”
Frank has found financial success by pivoting from composer to Hollywood producer; he’s wooed by the seductions of success, but – it becomes quickly clear – is viewed as a sell-out by his former lyricist partner Charley, now a playwright, and by Mary, an author turned critic.
We move backwards from jaded to utopian, taking in on the way divorce, infidelity, unrequited love, artistic integrity and compromise, the lure of commercial success and the ebb and flow of friendships made at a formative age. We end at the frenetic hustle of youth where decisions are made quickly and lightly, from marriage to putting on an off-off-off-Broadway show.
The superlative cast tackles the reverse chronology assuredly, the pace quickening as we travel backwards to their original hopes, loves and ambitions. It’s telling whose dreams have endured, whose have been fulfilled and whose have adapted with ravages of time, maturity and compromise.
On the way, the friends encounter Gussie, an up-and-coming Broadway star who has none of their wit-fuelled banter but all of their determination to do what everyone in New York seems to want to do: ‘make it.’ This is a star turn by Georgina Hopson, who steals the show with her stunning voice, comic timing and innate understanding of the character’s desperation to be something bigger than herself.
The other clear standout is Ainsley Melham who, although too polished to depict the classic nerdy Charley I’ve always envisaged when hearing these songs, breathes fresh life into the idealistic lyricist and playwright who despairs at his artistic partner Frank selling out to Hollywood and revoking the artistic independence and integrity they once held dear. He’s the one who first inspired Charley to believe their music could change the world; that they’d be “the names in tomorrow’s papers.” It becomes darkly prophetic: Frank lands himself in the press for his commercial sell outs, then for a messy divorce.
Mary is in many ways this story’s acerbic, shambolic soul; after enjoying relatively early success as a novelist, she succumbs to alcoholism; you get the impression she’s a younger version of Joanne in Company (who sings ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’). She’s our wry observer who says everything we’re thinking but dare not say (this production has cut one of Mary’s earlier lines about going from having a little bit of wine with her dinner, to a little bit of dinner with her wine).
You don’t fully believe the pristine-looking Elise McCann when she drunkenly declares herself “fat” and happier with being a failure than a sell out, like Frank, who she once looked up to adoringly. Whilst brilliantly acted throughout, the casting here is a little off for you to buy that she’s a hot mess.
That said, McCann is such a tour de force that she does, by the end, convince you to suspend your disbelief. Especially when she sings the glorious words: “All right now you know: Life is crummy, Well, now you know … It’s called flowers wilt, It’s called apples rot, It’s called thieves get rich and saints get shot, It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot.” Her delivery is on point enough to make you forget the curious casting.
There are other songs here you may recognise, particularly ‘Not a Day Goes By’ as popularised by Bernadette Peters in her album Sondheim Etc. Musical Director Andrew Worboys has reduced the score written for a 13 piece orchestra to just five musicians, giving a stripped back sound which works better for this cosy 110 seat space at the Hayes.
Dean Bryant’s direction keeps the pace lively, with a kinesthetic flow that interrupts any lulls. Characters sing into cameras projected onto screens in Jeremy Allen’s fabulous set, giving a Big Brother feel to a cast of characters desperate to have all eyes watching them and their artistic endeavours.
The final seemingly upbeat song, ‘Our Time’, is always strangely emotional. The tinkling of the piano echoes the spine-tingling excitement of three optimistic young things, yet to become jaded by life’s inevitable disappointment, sacrifices and different expectations of friendship and artistic collaboration. The characters are beaming but as an audience member you feel a pang of everything they’re about to feel in their hopeful lives as they inch towards forty. That conflicting feeling of hope and disappointment is teased out with flair by this fantastic production.
Merrily We Roll Along plays the Hayes Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Elizabeth Bay until Saturday, 4 December. For tickets and further information, visit https://hayestheatre.com.au/event/merrily-we-roll-along.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.
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