Review, Merrily We Roll Along, National Youth Music Theatre, Southwark Playhouse Elephant by James Ellis

Photo credits: Konrad Bartelski

National Youth Music Theatre can righty be proud over an alumni of star studded names over the year, who all passed through performing with them. In my first time seeing them and in the new Southwark Playhouse, I stumbled over to see them take on a Sondheim rarity.

Based on the play Geroge Kaufman and Moss Hart, this musical version of Merrily We Roll Along was a notorious flop on Broadway. Yet it has found some sliver of popularity with some cracking songs and with Sondheim, who passed last year, now is the time to go out and see his stuff. Expect clever songs, lighting quick delivery of lyrics (also by him), earworms galore and a refreshing twist on what a musical should be.

This story of Frank Sheppard and Charley Kringas, a composer and lyricists combo on the up, must have been quite cathartic for Sondhiem, looking back on work he did with Leonard Bernstien and Jule Styne. His role with them was purely the writer of lyricist and no doubt the former composer would have been a memorable working environment. Demons are let loose here, the leading lady Mary Flynn, the guys good friend and Frank’s wife later on. The show goes back in time, the lack of chornological order would have proved quite bold back in the 70s, no doubt. We see success, to flops, to their humble beginnings.

It is pretty dated in some respects. The orchestration, some cheap harpsichord keyboard riffs and outdated stereotypes/jokes go against the show. Though the quality of the songs are very high, they remain moving, funny and insightful. I’d pluck out Old Friends as a favourite, very catchy and a nice three hander about the trials and tribulations of friendship. The title song has some charm, though not really a flabergasting find. It’s a Hit, Our Time and Bobby and Jackie and Jack also stand out for various reasons, mostly their quick wit, topical nature and effective sound world.

I respecfully won’t mention this young cast by name, they are rising stars for sure (with a few from Wales to boot!). I was impressed by the very effective American accents aquire for these roles, sounding like the real thing. Humour and sad bits were demonstrated with a formidable punch. The leads had a good peppy attitude as well, the ensemble also quick and alive. Director Katherine Hare and crew should be proud with their efforts putting this on. Libby Todd on sets and costumes harked back to the era, uncluttered moments would lead to hefty scenes and the wide space was used effectively. Not an easy piece to slap on any stage, I’m sure. Side note I would have loved a much earlier start time. We didn’t get out of the theatre till 10:45pm and sorting out public transport in the big city at that time can prove grueling.

It may have its flaws but it’s a big, busy show for youngsters to do today.

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