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Review: Merrily We Roll Along - the right direction for Stephen Sondheim

Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

    Director Maria Friedman coaxes superb performances from Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley (centre) and Mark Umbers. Photo: Tristram Kenton
    Director Maria Friedman coaxes superb performances from Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley (centre) and Mark Umbers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

    There have been some cracking revivals of Stephen Sondheim musicals over the past few years. This one is up there with the best, which is not bad for a debut director.

    But then the director in question is the Sondheim-savvy Maria Friedman, who as a bill-topping performer has earned awards while starring in the composer’s musicals, including this one.

    The show’s quirky core — which was pretty radical when Sondheim and book writer George Furth wrote it in 1980— is that its story about three talented friends is told backwards.

    Beginning in 1976, and ending 20 years earlier, we first encounter film producer Franklin Shepard as he looks back in solitude on his past life as a composer with lyricist Charley and their mutual friend Mary, a novelist.

    The tight-knit trio are superbly played by Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell, each of whom stamp their copious talents on a terrifically sung production.

    That is to be expected with a singer of Friedman’s quality at the helm. But there is a good deal of directing nous too, making this longish evening feel less than its near three hours.

    And although we never quite get the story’s promised poignancy, perhaps that is something to do with the artifice of a show that is more interested in how its structure can be exploited by Sondheim’s score than it is in the characters who inhabit it. Never mind — it is exploited brilliantly.

    Soutra Gilmour’s vaguely art deco set, if lacking in inspiration, does efficiently serve as a blank canvas for the action.

    Meanwhile Humbley’s delivery of the complex number, Franklin Shepard Inc — which satirises the main theme, the selling out of talent -— is nothing less than masterful and typifies the kind of wry, urbane music-making that has made Sondheim a legend in his own lifetime. His friend Friedman has done him proud. (Tickets on 020 7378 1713. Show extended to March 9 2013)

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