Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” is a skittish beast — it was a famous flop on Broadway — and makes a challenging choice for West End star Maria Friedman’s directorial debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory. There are signs of inexperience in her production, but Friedman does little to tackle the work’s deepest challenges. But she fairly hammers home its good points, and Mark Umbers anchors the show with a strong performance in the show’s central role.
“Merrily” famously tells its story backward, tracking movie producer Franklin Shepard (Umbers) from lonely middle-aged affluence in Los Angeles back to his youth in New York City, when he and best friends Charley (Damian Humbley) and Mary (Jenna Russell) first met. Mary loves Frank. Charley and Frank write musicals: Charlie the dogged, idealistic writer to Frank’s gregarious and increasingly distracted composer.
This central triangle lies at the heart of the show, and thence come its memorable moments, including Charley ripping Frank to shreds on live TV in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” (superbly rendered in Humbley’s perf).
But “Merrily” is not a show that plays to its own strengths. In the first half especially, the action is so focused on Frank that the other two stagnate, little more than personified ideals placed there for Frank to betray. Meanwhile, lesser characters are charged with bringing the story. It’s a bumpiness that a great revival would need to negotiate, and Friedman’s doesn’t.
As the self-destructive Mary, Russell starts out explosive — her drunk asides at Frank’s L.A. pool party are hilarious — but she fades: You don’t get a woman falling apart in reverse. Ditto Humbley’s Charley. The live TV meltdown is telling, and we know he’s been seeing a shrink — but where did all that come from?
If the focus is to be all on Frank, Umbers does a fine job in the role. He’s likeable — important for a guy who behaves so badly — and his easy grace alongside Humbley and Russell’s shamble brings the awkward sense that this guy was always destined to outshine his buddies. As the temptress diva who leads him astray, Josefina Gabriele is the show’s stand-out turn, hilariously calculating in company, self-knowing and self-torturing in private.
The show looks good, with designer Soutra Gilmour conjuring chic couture and interior design for the high life scenes, and it sounds great as well. Friedman seems in control enough as a director, although naiveties do creep in. The crowd scenes don’t show you where to look; the long-winded dialogue is allowed to take its time; the decision to bring a child on to sing a solo at the close feels like a lapse of taste.
But the production ends on a high note. The three stars are charming in the young, dippy mode of their early years, and it is here where Sondheim’s score begins to bear the full emotional weight of the piece. While our heroes speak of changing the world, themes sound in earnest that we have earlier heard distorted and parroted, as if all life were but an attempt to rediscover these moments. It’s the music of irony and nostalgia and regret, and it’s very lovely.