"Nothing's the way that it was. I want it the way that it was."
Merrily We Roll Along has been revived several times in the United Kingdom since its ill-fated initial Broadway run which closed after 16 performances in 1981. Maria Friedman, a former Merrily Mary herself (Leicester Haymarket 1992), makes her directorial debut
at the Menier Chocolate Factory with the most recent revival. Friedman uses the Leicester version of the show despite there being a newer version which debuted in February at Encores! in New York. I happened to really like the Encores production and even after several months the performances are still quite vivid in my mind (note: they were selling the cast album at the Menier) so was curious how I would feel about another revival so soon after that one.
Maybe it is the subterranean space, the intimate venue, or the directing choices, but the Menier production offers a very different feel than the bright, shiny, bittersweet Encores concert staging. Our story begins in 1976 in California at the fashionable pad of Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers). He's hosting a party for his new movie which has just opened to great success. He's clearly having a fling with his leading lady Meg (Zizi Strallen) while his wife Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) a former Broadway star seethes in the wings. Frank has flown his oldest friend Mary (Jenna Russell) out for the movie premiere. Mary has nothing but vitriol for Frank who never talks to his son anymore, who has turned his back on his old friends, and who is not writing music anymore which is what he had always set out to do. Time then moves backwards as we see how Frank got here after a major falling out with his creative partner Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) on national television, a messy divorce from his first wife Beth (Clare Foster) who took custody of his son, and how he stole Gussie away from her husband who gave Frank his first big break on Broadway. As the characters get younger we see Frank, Charley and Mary as young, hopeful dreamers expecting to spend a life pursuing their creative dreams while remaining friends. Life in 1976 shows us that did not come to fruition.
Friedman uses an image of 1976 Frank, our hero-antihero, as a motif throughout the play as time rolls backwards and we see how Frank came to be he unhappily married,
wildly successful but artistically compromised producer he is in the 70's. Starting from the opening scene, and then throughout various moments in the show, Frank holds a copy of a script (not sure if it was Take a Left the show he was supposed to do with Charley or his terrible movie) and without
the help of the ghosts of Christmas past and future he wanders through his own
life story. This image gives us our perspective to reflect. It's a helpful device and focuses us a bit more on Frank's own cogitation of his choices. It is particularly heartbreaking when 1976 Frank is confronted with his young son who sings his verse of one of the Transitions (I saw Joseph West play Frank Jr. and he was adorable).
In contrast to the casting in Encores (where the leads were in their 30's--in fact Donnell only turned 30 later in the year) Friedman casts actors who are a bit older in the main roles so that again that point of reflection on their youth becomes a bit more palpable (Umbers is 39, Russell is 45, Humbley is 33). Donnell and Co. were aged well to "play" older and younger but Friedman's choice puts the focus on older Frank and his regrets.
One of the things I noticed about Frank in the Encores production was
that things seemed to "happen" to that Frank. Maybe because it was a
younger actor there, or maybe because it was an older actor here I felt
Umbers taking charge of Frank and his life. Here, I found the frequent
return to 1976 Frank made it a bit more obvious that Frank made his own
future. Frank's self-loathing was also a lot stronger here. The
conclusion I came to in the Encores version was that Frank took a
different path--maybe not the artistic path, maybe not the noble path,
but he could live his life even with the disappointments and lost
friends. Whereas in this version Frank feels like he is at the end of
his rope. This life he lives is almost foreign to him. He's more
disillusioned and disgusted with the way things have turned out. When
Mary leaves Frank in this version I never questioned that this was the
last time they would see each other. I never quite felt that finality
in the Encores production. Those differences made the opening of this
version immediately more engaging but I felt this production lost it's
way as time went on--connecting more to the bitter than the bittersweet
part of the show.
One of the strengths of the Encores production was that the trio was
so chummy and effervescent (and seeing the cast tweet the photos from the production in the weeks leading up to it made you feel like these actors were becoming the inseparable friends they would play on stage) . Here, I felt the darker 70's scenes worked
better than Encores (and by using the Leicester version things are a bit
darker in that opening scene with the blinding of Meg by Gussie), but
that breath of hopeful energy that is supposed to take over in the
second Act was not as strong here. What should be more bittersweet in
the second Act doesn't feel as connected to the earlier scenes. The
emotional wallop later was not as strong as I wanted it to be.
Overall I enjoyed the Menier's terrific main trio.
Mark Umbers as Frank is a charismatic performer. He is masterful and
solid as the older Frank whose sunny, handsome exterior hides his self-doubt and self-disgust. His voice seemed to go up a bit as he becomes younger and more enthusiastic. But he has a glow about him and you can see why everyone would be drawn to him. He plays Frank a bit more slick than Donnell and he feels more opportunistic. When he is propositioned by Gussie and she plans to leave her husband, you feel like he comes around willingly to this decision and it is even what he wants. Abandoning his friends comes a lot easier to this Frank. I feel like I knew this Frank in my real life in Hollywood.
Damian Humbley plays up the neuroses of Charley Kringas and nails the
always difficult song Franklin Shepard Inc. playing it with less pain than Miranda but with more desperation and comedy. Humbley is made to look schlubbier than Lin-Manuel Miranda was. I liked the particular bit over him stuffing food into his pockets at the ritzy party.
Rounding out the trio, as the broken heart of any Merrily production, is Jenna Russell as Mary, who has been in love with Frank since she first met him and has never told him her feelings. Russell who was an incredible Dot in the Menier's production of Sunday in the Park with George is no less emotionally cutting here. They play up Mary as a fat, washed-up drunk. Maybe it was the costuming but something about the older Mary that made me think of Sue Mengers (I'm not sure that is fair having never met Mengers but I imagined her as sort of the one fat lady in a room full of starlets and starlet wannabes). To some degree I found Mary's ill fitted costumes distracting, but I was happy to make the trip just for another dose of Russell singing Sondheim.
The remainder of the ensemble was fine but after Elizabeth Stanley tore up the stage as Gussie in New York, Josefina Gabrielle here paled in comparison for me. Gabrielle did not quite feel like she had that manic, desperate energy that Gussie will stop at nothing to get what she wants. It's an unfair comparison but Gabrielle could not erase Stanley from my mind. Clare Foster did not hold a candle to Betsy Wolfe's Beth. I saw Foster last year in Crazy for You and felt kind of meh about her then. She just does not have the stage presence to really capture my attention. An unexpected stand-out was the very handsome Ashley Robinson as Tyler (turns out he originated the role of Jett Rink in Giant). He caught my eye in his small role as a pal of Frank's. A few more stand-outs in small roles were Amy Ellen Richardson as KT and Joanna Woodward as the TV anchorwoman.
This production did suffer from some low budget woes. I noticed it most in the costumes. Gussie's Broadway production number looked like it cost about $12 to put together (what is that 8 pounds sterling). Something about the design of the show was really distracting to me. The set design seemed to work for the earlier scenes but then as the play moved on it became less clear where we were and what time period we were in. (I joked about this on twitter but I swear at some point in the early 1960's Gussie is wearing pajama jeans!?). That said, I definitely enjoyed The Blob choreography by Tim Jackson and I liked that the ensemble would slowly creep onto the stage for the Transition numbers and in the end they came out dressed in their most indelible roles (making it a lot clearer that this was Frank's reverie of his past).
The space at the Menier is very small and I had not seen a musical there
before. It is shallow and long so the action gets staged horizontally
rather than vertically. It enhances the intimacy but for me it felt a
bit cramped. The active space to perform seemed shallow and when the
full ensemble was on stage it felt claustrophobic to me.
All in all I could overlook the production elements I was not a fan of and enjoy Friedman's directorial choices and Russell, Umbers and Humbley singing their hearts out. Despite my quibbles Merrily is a show I would cross an ocean to see (and I might be in the minority with quibbles as the Guardian critic Michael Billington gave it a rave review). In fact, I wished I had had a chance to see it a second time because the things I liked outweighed the things I didn't like and I just love to hear wonderful performers sing that gorgeous score.