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BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

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MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

Tuesday 26th October 2021, 7:30pm, Hayes Theatre

The challenge of staying friends as people grow and ambitions evolve is analyzed with mid century modern clarity in Dean Bryant's production of Stephen Sondheim (Music and lyrics) and George Furth's (Book) MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. The 1981 musical adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play retains a relevance in reinforcing that people change and sometimes friends and friendships can't be saved, no matter how hard we may try.

In his early 40's and the toast of 1976 Hollywood, or at least that's what his sycophantic employees and hangers on tell him, fame and money hungry Franklin Shepard's (Andrew Coshan) personal life is a falling apart, not that he'd see it that way though. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG's famously unusual regression over 19 years seeks to answer the question of "how did you get to be here" as key moments in Franklin's life are recalled with common threads and themes steadily emerging. He has gradually pushed his best friends, lyricist turned playwright Charley Kringas (Ainsley Melham) and novelist turned theatre critic Mary Flynn (Elise McCann), to the point where they can no longer tolerate his sell out behaviors that have taken him from talented but poor composer of honest art with heart and meaning to money hungry producer of financially successful movies that people will forget 5 minutes after leaving the theatre.

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Ainsley Melham as Charley, Andrwe Coshan as Frank and Elise McCann as Mary (Photo: Phil Erbacher)

Dean Bryant's 2021 staging in the intimate space of Hayes Theatre echoes Hal Prince's ideas for the original staging with some costume changes occurring on stage with the aid of clothes and wigs stored in cupboards in the wood paneled side walls Jeremy Allen's (set design) set. Live action footage from two mobile video cameras and cameras within the set connect the initial scenes to Frank's evolution into the world of film and Hollywood, away from his artistic roots as a New York Musical theatre composer. Melanie Liertz's costume design subtly reinforces the regressive timeline while expressing the different natures of each character, from the always on trend leading actress Gussie Carnegie (Georgina Hopson), the conservative Beth (Tiarne Sue Yek), the perennially unburdened by any sense of following fashion Mary and the preppy WASP Frank.

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Andrew Coshan as Frank and Elise McCann as Mary (Photo: Phil Erbacher)

Ainsley Melham's expression of playwright Charley, Frank's former collaborator and best friend who retained his passion for producing pure art so is increasingly frustrated with Frank's focus on money, is beautifully rendered. Melham garners the audience sympathy for the frustrated artist longing to get back to producing pieces with meaning, the plan that Charley and Frank dreamed of when they moved to New York City in 1957. His performance of Charley's on-air breakdown in Franklin Shepard, Inc is brilliant in his comic timing and physical expression, and as always, his voice is a treat to listen to. Elise McCann ensures that it is clear that Mary has been the glue that has held the trio together for as long as she could manage despite Frank and Charley's behavior. The undercurrent of Mary's unrequited feelings subtly colours McCann's first scene to keep the audience guessing as to why Mary is still persisting to try to maintain the friendship when everyone else from Frank's past have distanced themselves, even his own son. Her vocals are infused with a changing balance of hope and disappointment which helps highlight the shifting times. While Frank is the center of the story Andrew Coshan's portrayal of the ambitious producer seems to try to hold him back from any significant charisma and likability which makes his desire for fame, recognition and the reliance of the latest young starlet wanting to attach herself to his success even more important.

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Georgina Hopson as Gussie (Photo: Phil Erbacher)

The women Frank pursues over the years are presented as similarly desirous of elevating their situation through proximity to power, from Beth who has a starry eyed view of celebrities, Gussie who works her way through a string of husbands that can each advance her career and Meg who sets her sights on her married producer after she is given the role meant for Gussie. Tiarne Sue Yek makes Beth feel wholesome and pure while the daughter of middle-class parents that are horrified at the prospect of her marrying an artist ultimately expresses an expectation that Frank give up his calling of creating deep, purposeful work, in favor of the money spinners that will bring fame and most importantly fortune. While Beth is ultimately presented as a contrast to Charley's wife, the unseen Evelyn, who supports Charley's low paying artistic endeavors when they've got four children compared to Beth and Frank's one, Yek's first rendition of Not A Day Goes By is powerful enough to convince the audience that she once truly loved Frank. Georgina Hopson is an absolute delight as the larger-than-life Gussie, a Broadway Leading lady used to being the center of attention. Hopson channels musical theatre and onscreen star Christine Ebersole's characters to give an endearingly bold presence that constantly teeters on the edge of sincerity and strategy and her high vamp rendition of Gussie's Opening Number is delicious as an expression of not only Gussie's personal situation but the character she's playing in the fictional MUSICAL HUSBANDS.

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Vidya Makan as KT (Photo: Phil Erbacher)

While some parts of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG don't really withstand the test of time, many younger audience members possibly not understanding the power of the Kennedy family in the 1960's and the gravity of Sputnik's low Earth orbit, the underlying examination of how Franklin's shallow nature has caused the alienation from anyone who has ever loved him for him, not on his payroll or not able to benefit from his success or his connections remains a powerful message. In a modern world when people are seduced by the illusion of power and legitimacy believed to be obtained by popularity, Franklin Shepard's story should be a cautionary tale. It highlights that it can be hard to hold on to your values and beliefs in a world wanting to make you thing there is a quick and easy way to have it all. It also challenges the idea of friendships lasting forever as sometimes friendships drift as people grow up and sometimes, trying to hold on to the past will only be self-destructive.

BWW REVIEW: Friendships And A Focus On Honest Art Lose Out To Fame And Fortune in Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Aaron Tsindos as Joe, Ainsley Melham as Charley, Elise McCann as Mary, Andrew Coshan as Frank and Tiarne Sue Yek as Beth (Photo: Phil Erbacher)

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, with its repeated musical themes that express the evolving/devolving emotions is beautifully presented to speak to a new generation that is faced with similar and new challenges as time progresses.

https://hayestheatre.com.au/event/merrily-we-roll-along/


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