It’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.
So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.
What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.
Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!
It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.
photo by Alastair Muir