Words cannot describe the excitement that has been building chez Front Row Dress since rumours surfaced back in March of a production of Steve’s “difficult” musical covering themes of friendship, unrequited love and the corrupting nature of success, directed by none other than arch Sondheim interpreter Maria Friedman. Then came the announcement of a cast the likes of which we had previously only fantasised about (Umbers, Russell, Humbley, Gabrielle, Foster, Kerslake, even a Strallen, baby sister Zizi). The last few weeks have seen the hysteria reach fever pitch as we began to resemble toddlers in the weeks before Christmas counting down the sleeps until M-Day. How on earth we managed to let them have the luxury of a week of previews before taking up our seats in the second row I’ll never know.
On Soutra Gilmore’s sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-esque set, it is 1976 and Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard and his glamorous second wife, movie star Gussie Carnegie, are throwing a party at their beautiful LA home to celebrate yet another triumph. Surrounded by sycophants and Frank's latest conquest ingenue Meg (Zizi Strallen doing her family name proud), only Frank’s old friend Mary Flynn, an overweight chain-smoking drunk, pricks the bubble and she reminds him of old times and old friends. From here the story is told in reverse and we discover that Frank was once half of a successful Broadway composing team together with Charley Kringas, a dishevelled lovable lyricist with smart line in barbed comments.
Arrogant, ambitious and ruthless, Frank’s drive ensures that he and Charley achieve success beyond Charley’s wildest dreams, but the artistic compromise inherent in selling their souls to the highest bidder causes irreparable cracks in their relationship. Only Mary, lovelorn and lonely, pining for Frank, remains a constant in both of their lives.
The cast are tremendous. Mark Umbers, tall, handsome and snake hipped, is a dreamy yet boorish Frank, one eye on the prize the other on the latest starlet and constantly looking after number one. Jenna Russell’s portrayal of Mary is devastating, the depth of her feeling for Frank becoming apparent as a life that once held such hope is consumed in a haze of alcohol and nicotine. I did initially wonder if she'd eaten all the pies, but she gets slimmer as the years fall away until she's a mere slip of a girl, thanks to the marvels of removable padding. Damian Humbley’s Charley, artistic integrity battling financial reward, is the cute dreamy nerd with the voice of an angel, god knows why Frank gets all the girls when Charley’s around. The leading triumvirate to die for are more than ably supported by Josefina Gabrielle’s fabulous turn as social climbing secretary turned movie star Gussie; Glyn Kerslake as Gussie’s first husband and big-shot producer Joe, turning a blind eye to his wife's indiscretions, and Clare Foster as Frank’s first wife Beth, the southern belle out of her depth in the big city longing for a normal family life.
The big bold brassy score gives the nine piece band plenty of opportunities to shine, which they seize with gusto, and an unexpected big dance number opening the second act as Gussie stars in Frank and Charley’s first big hit gives the Mary Janes a welcome airing.
By the time we arrive back in 1957, the early twenty somethings have their whole lives ahead of them and the dreams and aspirations of youth to propel them forward. Sitting on the roof of their apartment block, they scan the night sky for a glimpse of the newly launched Sputnik passing overhead and a sadness encroaches, perfectly encapsulated in Jenna Russell’s gaze at Mark Umbers as they sing the final paean to hope, Our Time, and I brush a tear or two from my cheek. Only we the audience know the heartache and disappointment that lies ahead for all of them.
Maria Friedman’s simple device of casting older actors looking back with varying degrees of regret has solved most of the piece’s problems. There is still the undeniable sticking point of having such an unlikeable character as Frank as the focus, but the score and the performances lift this way above your average West End fare, engaging the brain and heart in equal measure and allowing the undisputed genius of Stephen Sondheim to shine. This barely ran a minute during its initial Broadway run, but fringe audiences tend to welcome challenging and sophisticated, especially coupled with some of Sondheim's best tunes and George Furth's intelligent book, so whatever you do treat yourself to a ticket, it'll linger a lot longer than Dreamboats and Petticoats.
Booking until 23 February 2013, It's A Hit! - Merrily We Roll Along