Merrily We Roll Along review – Sondheim’s ‘flop’ is a musical delight

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It was only a matter of time before Hayes Theatre Co – the impossibly small Sydney space dedicated to making musicals matter – staged Merrily We Roll Along.

Merrily, a famous flop, boasts one of Stephen Sondheim’s most gorgeous scores – more straightforward and pop-influenced, full of ease without sacrificing intelligence – and since it has been extensively rewritten from its original disastrous run in 1981 (it closed after just 16 performances), the story contains more much-needed clarity.

Related: ‘Sydney, we’re back’: Hamilton makes jubilant return to the Australian stage

But it’s still extraordinarily difficult to pull off. The show doesn’t work if we don’t care about its characters – it’s critical that we believe in them and find their journey credible.

That’s because this story – the story of Franklin (Andrew Coshan), Charley (Ainsley Melham) and Mary (Elise McCann) – moves backwards through time. The trio are close friends – or at least they used to be. We meet them in their 40s, when Franklin – a Broadway composer turned Hollywood success – is rich and famous, and ultimately unhappy. His best friend Mary is drunk and caustic; their third musketeer and Franklin’s one-time musical collaborator, Charley, is nowhere to be seen – the friendship clearly over. Franklin’s life is falling apart as the positive reviews roll in. It’s lonely at the top.

It’s well-known by now that Merrily, after that first scene, just starts rolling back the clock. We see the moment Charley’s frustrations with Franklin boiled over and ended the friendship; we learn why Mary is so unhappy; we watch the friends lose their loving bond and with it their youthful optimism. We end, heartbreakingly, when the friends are in their 20s, on the brink of their adult life. They see nothing but blue skies. We’ve just lived the wreckage.

How do actors de-age in front of your eyes and feel consistently real? How does a director ensure that we always understand the progression of time, and keep the characters on a steady journey that doesn’t feel overblown and overplayed? Both of these questions are even more critical at the Hayes, which only seats 110; there’s nowhere to hide.

Enter director Dean Bryant, an artist who never chooses the easy laughs and spectacle-first approach to staging musicals. He probes restlessly at character and story to find the emotional truth of the scene, and it’s that focus on the complications of friendship, fame and creative work – the tension of love affairs and the shattering depth of lost friendships – that makes the show feel like a success.

He transitions his cast back in time with the necessary support (wigs, costume changes), but it’s the subtle embodied shifts that make us believe it. (The choreographer, Andrew Hallsworth, is critical here: he finds a movement language for these characters that evolves in reverse; they open up and move more freely as they get younger.) The musical director, Andrew Worboys, makes a band of five feel like an orchestra, giving the show a driving, constant source of life.

The set, by Jeremy Allen, provides plenty of dimension for the actors to work within, but an additional (sometimes live) video element, with screens mounted at the back of the stage, designed by David Bergman, pulls focus from the production more often than it adds to it. This is a theatrical character study that doesn’t need to be augmented or padded out; the screens make a tough narrative sell even more difficult, and reminds us how much we’re relying on imagination.

Still, Merrily is a product of its time. We end at the dawn of the 1960s, so critical scenes rely on political and cultural references that are fading out of the collective consciousness, and George Furth’s book doesn’t hold up as well as Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

But the bigger problem is Merrily’s treatment of its women. Mary, Franklin’s second wife Gussie (Georgina Hopson), ingenue Meg (Vidya Makan) and Franklin’s first wife Beth (Tiarne Sue Yek) are only ever in service to the men of the story, their own perspectives either downplayed by the book and lyrics or worse, ignored outright. The show is cruellest to Mary, making her the butt of every joke.

Bryant, to his credit, works hard to offset this in direction, offering Beth, Gussie, Meg and especially Mary moments of dignity, complexity and strength. Yek gives Beth the anger she needs (although the character is still painfully undeveloped), and Makan’s supporting roles elevate the entire company. Hopson is glorious as Gussie, a camp portrait of a diva being made and unmade that comes close to, but deliciously never becomes, caricature.

But it’s McCann who goes the furthest towards solving the problem of Mary. Resisting the acting shortcut of performing simple anger, she laces her caustic comments with vulnerability and an aching openness. McCann has always had a gift with a lyric, and Sondheim’s wordy lines sound natural, necessary in her mouth. Her voice is beautiful, malleable; if you listen closely, you hear it get younger as the characters do.

Still, Merrily cares the most about Franklin and Charley, and Bryant coaxes the entire show into something of a platonic love story. Melham, a new leading man on the biggest musical theatre stages (Pippin, Aladdin) in Australia, gets better and better every time, and he’s remarkable here. He has the showiest, flashiest number of the evening – the patter song Franklin Shepard, Inc – and Melham delights in every second of it, droll and dashing and deft. Coshan’s Franklin is the heart of the show and his steady performance props up the action, but he’s at his best when he’s with Melham – the notes are held a little longer, the lyrics trip easier off the tongue. He and Coshan light each other up, making the tragedy of their severed bond even more deeply felt.

Merrily only works if we care. This production makes sure we do.

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