Fine performances in a challenging musical
By Bradley Storer
Merrily We Roll Along, currently being presented by Watch This at the MTC, is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most beloved scores but was regarded in its original Broadway incarnation as a critical and commercial flop. Part of this is due to the challenging structure of the show, moving backwards in time to unravel the complexities of the characters depicted, but also since we begin with the central character at his most morally corrupt it can be hard to generate sympathy for him.
As this character, Franklin Shephard, Lyall Brooks faces an uphill battle trying to make him sympathetic. He acts and sings the part very well, but feels stronger as the older Frank more than the younger one. Nelson Gardner is charmingly nerdy and goofy as Charley, bringing wonderful physical comedy to the role. Completing the central trio in the role of Mary is Nicole Melloy, and she is so brilliantly funny and heart-breakingly transparent in every moment that it feels like the role could have been written for her – watching her in the part makes a compelling case that the show’s central journey is actually Mary’s instead of Frank’s.
Sophie Weiss as Beth ably handles the show’s biggest ballad, ‘Not A Day Goes By’, and her character’s transition from a haunted and heart-broken woman to the sunny naivety of youth. As the famous Broadway star Gussie, Cristina D’Agostino nails her big dance number but doesn’t manage to find the humanity under the glamourous façade, directed to play the character so over the top that it comes off a caricature. The ensemble, playing a wide variety of characters across the twenty-year time lapse, are marvellous with too many standout moments to recount here, and their united voices as they sing ‘Our Time’ are a truly beautiful conclusion to the evening.
Sara Grenfell’s direction and staging feels slightly confused which is a problem with a show such as this where there is already a complex structure, and the minimalistic set (consisting mainly of a large staircase and a set of curtains) tends to blur the scenes together. Cameron Thomas does a wonderful job as the sole musician in this production, and while it is lovely to hear the voices of the cast and ensemble unamplified in the space, the score loses much of its potential power when played only on the piano.
While not entirely successful on all fronts, the collection of strong performances and Sondheim’s magnificent score make this new production of Merrily a worthwhile visit.
Venue: The Lawler Studio, Melbourne Theatre Company, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 29th June – 15th July
Times: Tues – Sat 7:30pm
Prices: $39 – $49
Bookings: 8688 0800, MTC tickets online
Image by Jodie Hutchinson