Merrily We Roll Along

Sondheim’s most famous flop, Merrily We Roll Along, was his last notable collaboration with Hal Prince. The story is unique in that the narrative goes in reverse. It’s 1976 and we meet successful song writer and movie producer Franklin Shephard at the premiere party for his latest film. Surrounded by fawning acolytes and friends he exploited in his climb to the top, the show asks “how do we get to be here?” Each scene then ticks the timeline back to 1957, pausing on the way to explain the key moments that shaped Frank and his relationship with writing collaborator Charley Kringas.

If you can stick with the slow pace until the penultimate scene of the second act this production does eventually pay dividends.

The retrogressive nature of the piece is often cited as the reason for its failure. Audiences have to work harder to follow a plot where the outcome of an action comes before the setup. But this also gives rewards for the attentive, not only in the narrative but in the musical clues that Sondheim cleverly plants to get around the tricky problem of playing a reprise before you’ve heard the song.

In the role of Franklin Shephard, Guy Clayson has the appropriate leading-man good looks and a very pleasant tone, but he’s a bit stiff and could benefit from not staring into the middle distance over our heads. His musical partner Charley Kringas is played by Ruari Paterson-Achenbach who also has fine vocals, but the performance can be a little tight so he needs to relax. Poppy Cracknell in the role of lifelong-friend Mary Flynn for the most part nails it apart from slightly unconvincing drunk acting right at the top of the show. Overall musically it’s beautiful, but the acting is a tad iffy.

The staging is black box with gleaming white set and props, which is strangely effective given the time period we’re traversing. Choreography is mostly pedestrian, but with the occasional highlight when they stumble into a big number. One small quibble was the distraction of the background action. They’d freeze when a song was going on, but be just a little too committed to a non-speaking role when someone else was carrying the dialog. Several times I found myself watching someone miming a scene rather than listening to what was going on downstage.

This Eltham College production seems to follow the 1994 Broadway revival for the first half, with some major cuts to the second act. Even with those cuts, it still comes in at nearly two hours without an interval. Quite an ask for a Fringe audience. If you can stick with the slow pace until the penultimate scene of the second act this production does eventually pay dividends. Opening Doors and the finale of Our Time is a sea change in the velocity of this show. What had been pretty heavy going up until that point picked up and made a triumphant break for the final curtain. 

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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The Blurb

Following last year's sell-out smash hit Sweeney Todd, Eltham College return with more classic Sondheim. Merrily We Roll Along features a haunting, slick score and received more five-star reviews in the West End than any musical in history. The story of a handsome songwriter and his troubled friendships and complicated personal relationships. Beginning at the end and running backwards, asking how we get to be so rich, so successful, yet simultaneously so miserable and so far from where we set out to be. A talented young cast accompanied by a live ten-piece band.