Sunday, April 28, 2013

Time Goes By: 'Merrily We Roll' Along by Stephen Sondheim at The Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street


 Stephen Sondheim , at 50, was the leading composer/lyricist of his generation, but 'Merrily We Roll Along', famously flopped on Broadway in 1981.  However, Sondheim didn't give up - thirty years on  Michael Grandage's Donmar Warehouse production won the Olivier  'Best Musical' award.   

Friday night's crowd  at The Harold Pinter Theatre  seemed to like this new production, but it was one of those audiences that seemed to be top-heavy with friends of the cast. Not that the cast weren’t good –they were- but the play still has its flaws.

A major weakness is that the story's  told backwards, spanning two decades from the protagonists' washed-up middle age  back to their early optimism ; it  lacks the, ‘What happens next?'  that normally drives a plot.

The storyline revolves around three 'Old Friends', which is also the title of one of the tunes in a  nostalgia-heavy story. Frank and Charley (Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley) are composer and lyricist who start out as idealistic collaborators but by degrees, ‘sell out’ to Hollywood. An implausible third, Mary, (Jenna Russell)   carries an alcohol-fuelled torch for Frank.

It’s a thankless role. In the opening party scene she's an embittered drunk shouting home-truths at a party, a cheap-laughs part that didn't deserve the rapturous exit applause. Most of the scenes work well, though - usually when the trio of pals are interacting.  Others are plain embarrassing – like the tap-danced 'Can-Can' that starts the second half,  possibly included to accommodate audience members who linger in the bar. Half of my row had left anyway.

On the upside, as my companion pointed out , the  chorus of show-biz characters are very impressive – clear-voiced, and well-choreographed, and one song, 'Franklin Shepard, Inc', is particularly impressive - middle-aged Charley sings and mimes what it was like  to work with his fame-obsessed partner  in the early years, the heat of creation continuously interrupted by phone-calls to publicists.

The delivery of the  torch-song 'Not a Day Goes By'  was mawkish but the overall musical  structure with its refrains and repetitions well integrated into the storyline, was good. I'm not surprised to learn that Sondheim wrote the words to 'West Side Story', the very first London musical I saw in 1959.

Apart from the underwhelming 'Into the Woods' at Regents Park last year, I haven't seen any other  Sondheim show -only heard songs like 'Send in  the Clowns' . But I'm keen now to see his  hit shows:  'A Little Night Music' and 'Sundays in the Park with George.'
The glossy programme, was very good value  at £4. It  included articles on director Maria Friedman, who brought the show from the Menier Chocolate Factory , interviewed by Mark Lawson, and an account of the  play's inception and critical history. I always appreciate some background information.

On the downside,  £9 for two ice-creams in the interval was appalling. I wish I'd insisted we go to the pub opposite, instead. These days a crowd outside doesn't always mean a lack of  seats inside, and in any case by the interval time some  of the local customers might  have gone home.

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