When a popular show transfers from an ‘Off-West End’ theatre to a mainstream West End theatre, expectations are always high and questions surround the production; Will it pull in a big enough audience? Will the intimacy of a small space be lost in a big theatre? Will the cast project the original sentiment across the bigger auditorium? And so on. Proving to be a hit with audiences at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Maria Friedman’s Merrily We Roll Along, faces these questions as it begins it’s run in its new home at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Personally, I don’t think anyone has anything to worry about.
Boasting one of Stephen Sondheim’s most melodic and harmonious scores, Merrily tells the story of three best friends, in reverse, starting in the 1970s and tracing back to the late 1950s where their friendship began. Focusing mainly on the character of Franklin Shepard, played by Mark Umbers, the audience is taken back through his journey to his success, and what he sacrificed to get there. This unique style of story telling makes Merrily a captivating and thought provoking production.
Mark Umbers is a true West End leading man, taking the role of Franklin with ease. He sails through the production showing charm, passion and tenacity. His performance is captivating, emotional and most importantly, truthful. Vocally, Umbers’ dulcet tones lend themselves perfectly to Sondheim’s complex score.
Appearing as Franklin’s collaborator and one third of the trio is Damian Humbley as lyricist Charley Kringas. Shying away from the limelight and in doing so, distancing himself from his best friend, Humbley by no means fades into the background of this production. His vocals have a wonderful smooth, velvety quality that soar through the auditorium, particularly in the Act II song ‘Good Thing Going’. The audience clearly sees the inner struggle of a man torn between the love for his best friend and his own love of writing, Humbley is a pleasure to watch.
Making up the final part of the trio is Jenna Russell as the once successful writer Mary Flynn. A lesson in honest, all-encompassing acting, Russell pours her heart into this role as she shows her loyalty, and not-so-secret love for Franklin. She is comedic, heart-felt and the glue that holds the three together through life. Russell, Umbers and Humbley, have real camaraderie on stage and easily recreate Sondheim’s sumptuous harmonies. Individually I cannot fault these three wonderful actors and as a trio, they are fantastic to watch.
Supporting Umbers, Humbley and Russell is a hugely talented cast with not one single weak link. Worth mentioning are Josefina Gabrielle and Clare Foster. Gabrielle holds her own as the vampy Gussie Carnegie, while Foster plays Franklin’s wife, Beth, with such enthusiasm and sincerity that at times me heart broke for her.
Maria Friedman has done a wonderful job in directing this show, effortlessly transporting the audience backwards through time. The design team plays a big part in this too with slight changes in décor and costume depicting the change in decade. Together as a company, the cast of Merrily has the audience hooked from the very first opening bars. A slick production that has transferred to the Harold Pinter seamlessly on an exclusive 12 week season. I cannot recommend it enough.
Principal cast: Franklin Shepard – Mark Umbers, Charley Kringas – Damian Humbley, Mary Flynn – Jenna Russell
Review by Natasha Wynn @natasha_wynn
Booking From: Tuesday, 23 April 2013
Booking Until: Saturday, 27 July 2013
Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes
Thursday 2nd May 2013