Review – Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th December 2012

Merrily We Roll AlongThank you for your patience, gentle reader. If you’ve been hanging around waiting for an account of another theatre trip, I’ve had to spend the last few weeks twiddling thumbs and urging the diary pages to lurch forward. Still, we’ve broken our fast now, and if you’ve got to wait ages for a show to come around, you might as well wait for a good one. And that’s certainly what the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along is. A very very good one.

What’s really hard to believe is that this 1981 Stephen Sondheim classic was such a flop on its first outing. The lyrics and melodies are Sondheim at his toppermost; George Furth’s book is witty, shocking, sad, funny and everything in between; the characters, storyline and structure are gripping. Obviously what 1981 didn’t have was Maria Friedman in charge; someone who has Sondheim written through her like a stick of rock,Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers  and who can identify and enhance the sweet and sour within each scene, if that isn’t too many food metaphors for you. Ms Friedman introduced us to the show in the delightful 80th birthday gala for Stephen Sondheim at the Derngate in Northampton we saw two years ago, when the first half of the evening was a concert performance of the songs from Merrily. You knew even then that she was itching to direct it. Well, it’s been worth the wait.

Like Pinter’s Betrayal, that we saw at Sheffield earlier this year, it starts at the end and ends at the beginning (must have been a late 70s, early 80s thing.) This gives a whole new dimension to dramatic irony, so as the show develops you watch out for the clues that created the future out of the past. “How did you get to be here” is the big question that’s continually asked as the whole jigsaw puzzle gets assembled in retrospect. Definitive moments from the three friends’ lives are highlighted, each one a “dangerous corner”, as we go back in time to their first meeting. J B Priestley would have loved it.

Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian HumbleyThe show digs deep into the nature of friendship and loyalty, ambition and expectation, what’s for real and what’s façade, and I for one found it absolutely spellbinding all the way through. Not only do these themes run throughout the show as a whole, you also get visual and musical reminders of them – the interlocking little fingers; the advice to write “from the heart”; the internal rhythms of Charley’s 1973 song “Franklin Shepard Inc” that are proven to be an accurate recollection of their late 1950s Opening Doors scene. These constant little reminders are like individual moments of reward as you appreciate the ebb and flow of the relationships.

Jenna Russell, Josefina Gabrielle and Glyn KerslakePerfectly suited to the intimacy of the Menier, it’s superbly staged – clear, crisp, practical, sensible; no element of the staging has been sacrificed to any directorial whim or “clever idea”, it simply lets the words and music tell their tale, and the occasional spilling out of the action away from the stage only involves the audience even more. One segment of the song “It’s a Hit” was performed so close to where Mrs Chrisparkle and I were sitting that we had to bring our feet and coats in a bit otherwise they would have formed part of the action too. I love it when it gets that close.

It’s not only the quiet, revelatory, personal songs that come across so well, the big numbers are also impressively staged. I loved the whole opening scene in Frank’s Beach House with the company doing “That Frank” – engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully put together – only Mr Ashley Robinson’s microphone was not quite loud enough for his voice to be heard over the music. The scene at Gussie and Joe’s Brownstone in 1962 with all the decadent trendsetters doing “The Blob” was equally entertaining (Mrs C was laughing her head off at it actually). And I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so camp – but absolutely realistic in its context – as Act Two’s opening scene, the finale of “Musical Husbands” involving French tap dancers and Miss Josefina Gabrielle in best vamp mode; quite brilliant.

The whole castJenna Russell is mesmerising as Mary, the aspiring writer who writes one big successful novel but for whom further success dwindles as she relies more and more on alcoholic support. She makes a fantastic old sot of a sourpuss in that opening scene, instantly combining rich comic timing with desperately pathetic sadness. There’s no doubt it’s a superb role – and she really makes the most of it. You follow the sequence of emotions that the character experiences and she tugs at your heartstrings at each event. It’s a wonderful performance.

Mark Umbers, as the hideously successful Frank shows an impressive progress or regression from ambitious purist to selfish sell-out or vice versa, depending on which time structure you’re observing. Mrs C wasn’t over convinced by his characterisation of the very young Frank, finding his youthful innocence a bit girlie and simpering; I know what she means, but I was prepared to forgive it as I was so rapt by the entire show anyway.Josefina Gabrielle in full flow At least the youthful Frank is a bit different from the older Frank, which cannot really be said for the youthful Mary and Charley. Mr Umbers has a great voice and stage presence and he uses them wisely.

Damian Humbley, a very sharp-toothed Harry in Company at Sheffield last Christmas, takes to the role of Charley like the proverbial duck to water, with his opening scene including the show-stopping “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, a bitter slice of savage Sondheim from which Charley and Frank’s friendship cannot recover. Mr Humbley does it brilliantly. His verbal dexterity throughout the whole show is remarkable – I loved his contributions to the Bobbie and Jackie and Jack routine when they’re doing their revue as youngsters.

Clare FosterJosefina Gabrielle is terrifically well cast as the manipulative star Gussie, and her singing and dancing is superb as always. She throws herself into the part with huge gusto and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Her drifting away from husband Joe towards Frank, and Frank’s subsequent rejection of her is all rivetingly well expressed. In a relatively unglamorous role, Glyn Kerslake as Joe does a wonderful progression/deterioration from all-powerful producer to toothless cuckold and it’s an amazingly good portrayal of how influence wanes (or grows, depending on your time perspective).

But all the cast are terrific. It’s a tremendous ensemble – and although the rest of the cast join the applause for the three leading performers at curtain call, each and everyone gives their all and is equally important to the success of the show. Clare Foster as Beth, for example, Frank’s first wife, is stunning as an emotional wreck the first time we see her, and as their earlier days together are revealed, you understand how she’s never going to recover from the shock of the marriage breakdown.Amy Ellen Richardson, Robbie Scotcher, Martin Callaghan and Joanna Woodward Superb support from the likes of Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan, Amy Ellen Richardson and Kirk Patterson too, whose appearance as the Reverend is one of the funniest retorts against racism I’ve ever seen on stage. Big up to young Noah Miller who played Frank Jnr on the performance we saw – super singing and word perfect, his use as a pawn in his parents’ warring brought a lump to your throat.

Just two more observations – what a great band! They’re stuck in what looks like a converted garage office at the side of the stage but they can’t half wallop out a show tune. And congratulations to whoever it was that went out and bought all the coats that get used in the course of the show. Some of them were exquisite. I felt like scouring Ebay for similar items as soon as I got home. Wasn’t quite so convinced by all the white socks, however.

All in all a wonderful production of a sensational show; it was one of those occasions that reminded me exactly why I love the theatre. It’s already got a two-week extension at the Menier tagged on to what would otherwise have been the end of its run – but surely this is not going to be the last we see of this. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 7th August 2011

Road ShowThe great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.

It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.

John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I$300 think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.

David BedellaThe two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael JibsonMichael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.

Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.

Gillian BevanGillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.

Glyn KerslakeThe remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.

Jon RobynsYay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.

Review – Another theatrical catch-up post

I really must keep up to date with these entries. I’m disappointing myself.

ian maxwell fisherSunday March 28th saw us at the Lilian Baylis theatre at the Stage Door of Sadler’s Wells to see the Lost Musical, Paris, by Cole Porter. If you don’t know, Lost Musicals is a fantastic thing. They dig up shows that haven’t seen the light of day for yonks and then perform them on an empty stage with just chairs and a piano. We’ve seen seven or eight of these over the years and they never fail to delight. Anne ReidThis year’s show, Paris, (it’s the one where “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” first appeared), is one of the funniest and most entertaining we have seen. The cast includes the wonderful Anne Reid who completely steals it. All hail the miraculous Ian Marshall Fisher who puts these things together. There are two more on this year, I confess we haven’t booked for them and I fear it may be too late to get decent seats. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Hedda GablerGood Friday, April 2nd, we saw Hedda Gabler at the Oxford Playhouse. Front of House at the Oxford Playhouse were obviously having a bad hair day. It’s always been a wonderful theatre, I remember it from when I was a teenager going there with Mum. And as a student, I was their College Rep. Happy days. But it’s not a good idea to have just one position where you can buy programmes when it’s a full house, and then only when they require you to have the correct change…. And why have they removed the signs that say Seats 1-10 this way, Seats 11-20 that way, we were all walking over one another to go in the right direction. Sigh.

Tim McInnernyAnyway it was a very good production of Hedda Gabler; Ms Gabler herself played by Rosamund Pike was a very dismal person right from the start. It was never a good idea to let that woman anywhere near those pistols. It was great to see Tim McInnerny again, I last saw him in a student production of Measure for Measure on the very same stage and I am pleased to say I gave him a glowing review in a student newspaper. My hunch was right, he came good. I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as I thought I would, and it brought back memories of a more thrilling Janet Suzman in the role circa 1977, maybe it was my age!

Sondheim Birthday ConcertThen last Sunday, April 4th (Easter Day, you may remember) we saw a celebration for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday at the Derngate in Northampton, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the wonderful Maria Friedman, with the also wonderful (if not quite as much) Graham Bickley and Daniel Evans. It was a most jolly and entertaining affair. They started off with a concert version of Merrily We Roll Along, none of which I had heard before and it certainly made me want to see The Real Show. Maria FriedmanMuch of the rest of the evening brought back memories of Side by Side by Sondheim, but with some twists: a gay version of “Getting Married” – with Amy now Jamie – which worked pretty well. Daniel Evans and Maria Friedman in bed doing “Barcelona” was a hoot, and her “Send in the Clowns” was most moving. There was a fabulous symphonic suite containing about three songs from Sweeney Todd; and then some more Todd songs, including A Little Priest in which Ms Friedman forgot the lyrics, which shows that even the divine are human. It was a great night and left you buzzing for more.