Monday, November 1, 2021

Merrily We Roll Along

Photo by Phil Erbacher

Luckiest Productions and Hayes Theatre Co present, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point. From 21st October - 27th November, 2021.

Going off to the Hayes Theatre in the expectation of once more (I have seen at least three other productions in Sydney) engaging with Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. I had a palpable sense of excitement. 

Stephen Sondheim is one of the Greats of contemporary theatre. I have rated him alongside Edward Albee, a writer and figure of the same generation - Albee born in 1928 and Sondheim in 1930. Albee passed away in 2016 at the age of 88 and Sondheim in March celebrated his 91st birthday. Two Great American geniuses spanning two centuries with a body of work of great note. I would include Tom Stoppard, who is a contemporary English writer and is only 84 as another Theatre Elder Genius whose work one approaches with anticipation and respect. Both these latter men are still writing, Stoppard having in the West End his latest play, LEOPOLDSTADT, on stage (It has been announced that the National Theatre Broadcast will screen performances of it in early 2022 in selected Sydney cinemas - a don't miss opportunity), and Mr Sondheim is working with writer David Ives on a new musical called SQUARE ONE. Interestingly, this work explores a romance between a couple that is told backwards in time. Sondheim had been working with Terrence McNally on another romance moving backward in time. That work lost impetus some time ago. Well before Mr McNally's passing. This time exploration is a constant challenge it seems

The range of work, both in content and explorations of form, from Mr Sondheim, is staggering - he is regarded as having "reinvented the American Musical". One of the bio-graphical tit-bits I have always held close is the fact that Mr Sondheim has always enjoyed the creation and solving of puzzles. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, was just such a task that Hal Prince, a regular collaborator, a theatre Director, proposed to Sondheim (via an introduction to the original play by Prince's wife Judy). The original play (1934) on which the musical is based (of the same name), by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells the history of three friends in reverse time order - from older to young; from bitterness to innocent ambitions/appetites. Sondheim shifts the time zones and creates relationships differently to the original. 

Sondheim in his book, FINISHING THE HAT (2010), reviewing and investigating his body of work, tells us he took, when tackling MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, 

The Notion: Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter and movie producer in his forties, reviews his life, both professional and personal, especially his relationships with his best friends, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas (his song writing collaborator), and two wives Beth and Gussie. The action moves backward in time from 1981 to 1957.

The fact that the work ends in 1957 - the year of Sputnik moving through space -  requires that he reflect the musical traditions of the period - the thirty-two-bar song - and working through the standard musical structures. He uses an example of the problem solving he had: "The structure of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG suggested to me that the reprises could come first : the songs that had been important in the lives of the characters when they were younger would have different resonances as they aged; thus, for example, "Not A Day Goes By," a love song by a hopeful young couple getting married, becomes a bitter tirade from the wife when they get a divorce, but the bitter version comes first in the musical's topsy-turvy chronology." This kind of puzzle was part of the attraction to this particular project for this artist. "In addition", he adds, "the show gave me the chance to revert to the sharp urban feeling of the songs in COMPANY and FOLLIES."

Indeed, as this production reveals itself on the Hayes Theatre stage the bitterness, anger and pain in the opening sequences that the major characters meet us with, makes this show not necessarily a happy night of escapism, which, especially, as we had all just come through stringent times in our Pandemic lives (and still are in), whether MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG was an appropriate demand of us - "Give us laughter and escapism, some songs to hum at home tomorrow morning!" - Of course, the optimism of youthful dreams in the midst of early attachments, does come and takes us out of the Hayes Theatre to the streets in a relatively hopeful state with songs such as OPENING DOORS and OUR TIME, having given us a chance of 'rapture'. It is, though, in the last half hour of the two and half journey that we are allowed to wallow in sentimental optimisms about the potential of our futures both professionally and personally. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is quite a demand. 

This difficulty of not having easily attractive individuals to want to identify with for such a long time in the structure of the playscript may be part (there were other possible artistic choices) of the reason that the original Broadway production failed with only 16 performances and 52 previews before closing. However, Sondheim continued to develop the script, tinkering with it in a production at La Jolla in California at the invitation of James Lapine in 1985, and further working on it for a production in Seattle in 1990, and an Off-Broadway revival in 1994. Each time making decisions that helped the audiences to 'get on board' with the show were introduced it seems. 

Then came British productions, the first notable one in the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester in 1992. It was the Donmar Warehouse production in December in 2000, Directed by Michael Grandage, that received the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Like a dog with a bone, Sondheim with positive collaborators ensured that MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG would become a work as interesting and exciting a challenge for artists and audience. A work that not only entertained but asked you to participate as a thrilling puzzle-solver. A work, like all of Stephen Sondheim's offers, that pleased you with affected feelings and intellectual challenges, involving both music and language. Content and form wrapped together and with an exhilarating energy that all Artists reach for.

When MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG begins, arrive with all your senses alert and invested in the thrill to be treated by an artist that respects and trusts that you are not a comatose but an intelligent sentient being. Someone PRESENT in the MOMENT. It is a work that has not only the basic ambitions of a work such as the musical COME FROM AWAY, that reopened in the huge commercial theatre space of the Capitol Theatre the night before, but, also a challenge to ask you to 'act' with the artists to be able to have a complete night in the theatre. All of Stephen Sondheim's body of work have this aura, and it is why I include him as a genius, who, as with Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard lift the theatre experience into something more than a good night out. (That he not only writes his lyrics but creates in the mysteries of the musical language as its partner, he may be the superior of the three)

Directed, by Dean Bryant, and with a longer rehearsal experience than usual, that has included not only the practical needs of staging and re-staging to employ the growing gifts of his small cast of only eight, he has had an invaluable extended dreaming time with all as the show was faulted to the necessary closures perforce of the Covid-19 virus Pandemic.

The Set Design (Jeremy Allen) is a static warm brown wooden box surround (good for acoustic) that intimates, in some of its details, of an art deco radio broadcast theatre space which envelops a raised platform that allows the necessary furniture to inhabit the space alongside a permanent straight backed piano. Behind is a curtained space where the band/orchestra of four is situated, guided by the versatile Musical Director for each performance, Andrew Warboys. The work has been scored, traditionally, for a 13-piece orchestra, but Mr Warboys says in the program notes: 

I felt it important to be able to emulate the big Broadway orchestra sound and also access the intimacy of a tight jazz quintet.

My response to Mr Warboys' orchestration is that it errs in a definite flavour to the sound of a jazz quintet. The 'intimacy', that Mr Warboys suggests is diminished with a Sound Design (Dave Bergman) that enjoys a bombast of volume that is discomforting to hear in the small space of the theatre and, maybe, reduces the personality of each of the songs, plotted and woven particularly through the cultural aural profile (sounds of the popular music) of each of the musical decades, beginning in 1975, through to the sounds of the 60's to the late 1950's - a challenge that Sondheim talks about as one of the thrills of creativity that he had to solve. However, the microphoned actors are balanced extremely well to make the important lyric content as clear as a bell. The Stage Design also accommodates cameras and screens that is both pre-recorded (image and musical sound - Dave Bergman) as well as live throughout the night, that prescribes the lighting design to not 'flood' the image (Veronique Bennett) and causes more a need for a generic style rather than a sophisticated spot one.

Among the actors the performance to relish is that of Ainsley Melham, as the lyricist/writer character, Charley Kringas (Mr Melham gave us the Disney Aladdin - which he subsequently gave on Broadway and in the Stage filming of it in London for the Disney Company!). He exudes intelligence, wit and a physical and vocal confidence that appears effortless. He takes charge of the 'patter' song: FRANK SHEPARD INC., in the middle of the first act and hauls this production into focus, (and an enthusiastic and grateful break for applause), that in the hands of the other artists, in the first half-hour or so of the show, has meandered entertainingly, but without clear direction of communication of Sondheim's sophistication of intent. It is not fair to say right out, but Mr Melham has the famous "IT" quality  - just look at his video imagery beside the other members of the company. They all individually can shine but Mr Melham glows. It's a gift which he has no control over (Monroe and Dean had it. Judy Davis has it. Kristen Stewart, Sarah Snook and Adam Driver, Ryan Cor have it), and when harnessed with instinctual gifts and brightening skills (and good luck) is a launching pad to the A-list.

Part of the difficulty of this production includes the gifted but technically immature performance by our leading character Frank Shepard, impersonated by Andrew Coshan, who uncomfortably 'pretends' that he understands what it is to be 40, and a commercial success who has knowingly sold his creative soul to the devils of money and power, while deserting his first wife, Beth, (Tiarne Sue Yek) and family, to ruin two other women, his other besotted best friend, Mary Flynn (Elise McCann) and a conniving woman, Gussie Carnegie (Georgina Hopson), she, too, besotted, but besotted as only an emotional narcissist can be. Mr Cosham becomes more comfortable as his character youthens and gradually moves into his power that, at last, reaches out to our empathetic buttons. Life might bake Mr Coshan's gifts to permit his talent the opportunities to grow, for there are grace and obvious vocal and physical skills. Is Mr Coshan shy? Or, is he surprised by this opportunity? I hope his courage grows to help to risk failure (I would not have thought that this Frank was either a composer or a film director).

Tiarne Sue Yek, gives a very moving performance as Beth and reveals the complications of living, in her rendition of her bitter iteration of NOT A DAY GOES BY. What follows is a well thought out sub-textual motivation for Beth's survival and the character and actor become immersed in each other. And as Ms Sue Yek begins to move into the younger, and more familiar emotional territory, the characterisation grows. What I saw, as well, was a sturdy ensemble actor in the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG company.

Similarly, with less writing of sophistication in his given tasks (Joe), Aaron Tsindos, is a great support to the ensemble, although there are instances when he reaches for the temptation of receiving response rather than choosing subtlety of a truthful characterisation. Although playing function without building a person, Mr Tsindos is almost always an asset to the production.

Vidya Makan, playing a variety of roles is a very sophisticated member of this ensemble, enough to have me read her biography in the program, only to be reminded of her offers as Catherine Parr in the musical SIX. I hope she is returning to that production if, and when it resurrects. Evan Lever appears in the ensemble as well. 

The acting in the company for the first third of the show was generally  strained - tentative - unsure to commit. 

Elise McCann, playing the bitter Mary Flynn is more caricature than character and while scoring the laughs (and how  - a la Elaine Stritch) lacks visible character motivation - and, once again it is only in the last youthful section that Ms McCann reveals to us clearly the yearning for Frank's attention that is the lynchpin for her character's action - it was too late. This Mary was not funny she was a withering hostile. 

Georgina Hopson given the 'peachy' role of mendacious Gussie to create, decides to truly belt it, and bat it she does with the decision to go for the camp - High Camp, chew the furniture and walls of the set Camp - to belt it into the stratosphere of our universe - searching for 'star' rather than for the ordinary human truths and the revealing realism that that demands of an actor creating character. Like any canny actor Ms Hopson recognises the gift that Mr Sondheim has written for Gussie at the opening of Act Two, NOW YOU KNOW, and it has become the apotheosis of her performance. She chooses to throw out sub-textual subtleties for over-the-top energies that literally obfuscates the lyrics with demonstrations of  "I love it"-explosive emotional states. Her acting choices for a very wonderfully written character is lazily all too dependent on extravagant physical gestures and face pulling - bent at knee and jutting chin - to achieve her characterisation. It needs directional aid for an approach to the Sondheim repertoire that demands naturalism and observational truths. Truth is required for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, not a classic musical theatre caricature - Sondheim doesn't write those kind of people unless he is indulging himself with the crazy merriment of say: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where he wrote the Music and Lyrics for a Roman farce by Plautus. 

Mr Bryant, as part of his responsibility has neglected to help the actors solve the acting of the older iterations of these characters or calm the grotesques. With his choreographer, Andrew Hallsworth, simple physical adjustments coupled with psychological investigation and observational skills could help the actors find a way to a more truthful possession.

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, has become one of the 'sleepers' in the Sondheim repertoire and although this Musical is not a match for the best of his work, it is still true to life and full of challenges that can test the best of the singers/actors in our industry. I left The Hayes Theatre pleased and stimulated with a growing admiration for the subtleties of the challenge of this work as an actor, director, both musically and as a character driven work. It is a worthwhile time in the theatre.

There are some who will choose COME FROM AWAY, as their musical theatre experience. Some will choose MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

I choose both, enthusiastically. 

Horses for courses, of course.

Welcome back to the theatre.

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