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Brisbane review - Merrily We Roll Along: charming and enjoyable boutique style entertainment

By Lilian Harrington

 

Production: Merrily We Roll Along

Writer: Stephen Sondheim

Book by: George Furth

Director: Tim Hill

Company: Ad Astra

Location: 57 Misterton St. Fortitude Valley

Season: May 16 - June 8

Bookings: Try booking

 



Stephen Sondheim has produced such a colorful musical legacy for the world stage; many of his works have become very popular the theatre going public. His productions usually demand a large  cast , a sizeable stage and lavish sets.

 Director, Tim Hill, has taken a gamble, staging Merrily We Roll Along, in the small studio theatre at Ad Astra. It seems an impossible task to get a live band and a group of talented cast assembled onto this limited stage space. Tim has managed to achieve this successfully. He has taken this not so well- known Sondheim musical, written in 1981, and developed it into a charming and enjoyable boutique style entertainment, which had a cast of eight.

Merrily We Roll Along, is  different in that it narrates the story backwards. The complex narrative does present a few challenges for the audience, because they need some signals to help understand what year is being referenced, so the time is indicated in lights positioned above the rear upstage window which indicates that the location is New York.

The script focuses on the characters themselves, in particular, the story of Frank Shepard, played by the talented and delightful, Stephen Hirst;  Along with his two, friends, who have become estranged, but who worked in the industry with him; Mary Flynn, ( Natasha Veselinovic),a writer,  and Charley Kringas, ( Alex Watson) musician and administrator, his colleagues. It traces Frank’s professional journey, who becomes a well- known wealthy composer, a father to Frank junior (Milo White) , and a playboy, who shows more fatigue over the years. While it shows scenes from the trio’s career and personal lives, it doesn’t actually emphasize youthful changes that may have been seen.

One of the themes that Sondheim appears to be making is how time changes everything. How those feelings of hope and enthusiasm that the talented trio held initially, when they  embarked on a bright musical future,  have  been challenged by personal and professional  events, which in turn has led to conflict between them so by writing the story backwards, Sondheim was able to end the show on a more  hopeful note.

The score which is such an important part of the  action, is beautifully conducted by Ben Murray. The subtle instrumental approach, keys and percussion, complemented the louder vocals and helped move the action forward, coloring the scene with an ambience and atmosphere. The songs are quite complex and would not have been that easy to sing, but they were delivered very competently; in particular the vocal stand outs were: Natasha Veselinovic, Alex Watson and Jordan Twigg, featured soloists.

The simple setting meant that the musicians were placed up- stage partially out of sight, behind a wooden screen. The other furniture was moved when needed by the cast, as they narrated the story. This left a lower stage area, which could be changed smoothly and effectively by the cast according to the scene.

The sound reverberated in this low ceiling studio space. It was difficult at times, especially, when there was raised dialogue and tension. The vocal level needs to be tempered back slightly, so that the audience could better appreciate the narration and the vocals. These needed to be set at a level that blended favorably with the limited building structure in the theatre. Apart from this, the talented team has created a polished and refreshing stage experience with Sondheim’s infectious music.

 

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