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REVIEW: "Merrily We Roll Along" at Ad Astra Theatre

A Journey Backward Through Friendship and Ambition

Music and Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim

Book by: George Furth

Directed by: Tim Hill

Venue: Ad Astra Theatre, Fortitude Valley

Experiencing Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along for the first time at Ad Astra was a revelation, as they delivered a high-quality theatrical experience with a minimal yet impactful approach. The musical tells its story in reverse, offering a unique perspective on friendship, ambition, and the passage of time as we journey from 1976 back to 1957.

Plot Summary

The story begins in 1976 at a party hosted by successful film producer Franklin Shepard, as he reflects on his life. His old friend Mary Flynn, now a struggling critic, calls him out on his life choices. As we rewind through time, we witness key moments in Franklin's life—from his fallout with lyricist and best friend Charley Kringas in 1973, to his rocky marriage with Broadway star Gussie Carnegie in 1968, and his early days of friendship, love, and artistic dreams with Charley, Mary, and Beth in the '60s. The journey concludes (or rather, begins) in 1957, showing the trio full of hope and ideas on a rooftop in NYC.

Performance and Direction

Tim Hill's direction is remarkable, successfully condensing a big Broadway musical into an intimate setting with only eight actors and a small band of three musicians. The cast (aside from the three leads) shift between different roles effortlessly, showcasing their versatility and the director's adept use of limited space.

Stephen Hirst as Franklin Shepard delivers a convincing portrayal of a man whose ambition leads him to sacrifice personal relationships. Hirst embodies the quintessential egotistical theatre figure, complete with an excellent New York accent and undeniable charisma. His portrayal of Franklin's evolution is compelling, making the character's journey both believable and maddening.

Alex Watson as Charley Kringas is exceptional; his performance a perfect blend of comedic flair and emotional depth as he captures Charley’s frustration and loyalty in equal measure. Interactions between Watson and Hirst underscores the complex dynamic of dreamer versus realist, ambition versus passion, particularly in the number "Franklin Shepard Inc." Watson's energy and incredibly quick articulation transform this frenzied monologue into a gripping highlight of the show.

Natasha Veselinovic as Mary Flynn delivers a moving performance, her character's evolution (or rather, de-evolution) from shattered adult to hopeful young woman providing a stark emotional contrast. Her solo "Like It Was" is achingly beautiful, capturing the bittersweet nostalgia at the heart of the musical. Veselinovic's flawless accent and outstanding vocals leave a lasting impact, although the chemistry between Mary and the two leading men feels a bit lacking until the final scene.

The supporting cast is also fantastic, with Jordan Twigg as Gussie Carnegie stealing the show in my eyes. Her transformation from heartbroken wife to manipulative figure to ambitious starlet is spellbinding. The opening number of Act 2 is a mesmerising showstopper, as Twigg embodies a Broadway diva as if she really were one.

Heidi Enchelmaier as Beth Spencer, Franklin's first wife, brings touching vulnerability to her role. Her heart-wrenching performance of "Not a Day Goes By" in Act 1 contrasts enormously with her charming portrayal of an upbeat, naïve, supportive young wife in Act 2. I applaud her ability to keep her voice so steady and beautiful while tears stream down her face.

Chelsea Burton showcases extraordinary characterisation with her magnetic stage presence. Whether portraying a young naïve Hollywood actress, a chirpy TV personality, or a stern middle-aged mother, Burton's performance is truly versatile. Chris Kellett as Joe Josephson exudes an old Hollywood charm that is simply irresistible. Liam O'Byrne, with his stunning voice and moments of comedic relief, seamlessly transitions between various roles, adding flair and cheer to each character.

The ensemble numbers sweep you away with their precision and passion, immersing us in Sondheim's intricate world through layered vocals and dynamic choreography. From the brilliant opening numbers "Merrily We Roll Along" and "That Frank" to the powerful Act 1 finale "Now You Know," each moment leaves you in awe of the complexity and energy pouring from the stage. The trio "Old Friends" is a powerful reminder of the complexities of mixing business with friendship, showcasing rising tensions that resolve into a bittersweet harmony.

"It's a Hit!" and "The Blob" are high-energy standouts, offering the ensemble ample opportunity to shine. Charley’s solo "Good Thing Going" is another emotional high point, performed with stunning sensitivity and clarity by Watson. The show-within-a-show number "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" is a fun, lively addition, while "Opening Doors" cleverly uses typewriters as instruments, highlighting the trio's youthful ambition and struggles of living in NYC.

Technical Aspects

Every technical aspect of the production is executed with innovative flair, from the use of the small space at Ad Astra to the meticulous attention to detail in set and costume design. The earthy tones of the '70s, the vibrant go-go dresses of the '60s, and the modest attire of the '50s all come to life before your eyes, transporting you seamlessly through different eras. The use of Polaroid pictures, progressively removed as the story winds back in time, adds a bittersweet visual representation of the narrative's regression.

Musically, the small band led by Ben Murray performs Sondheim's intricate score with finesse. The absence of microphones - often a nuisance in recent productions I have seen - allows the actors to project naturally and engage more authentically with the audience.

Themes and Impact

"Merrily We Roll Along" explores the erosion of dreams and relationships over time, and how success and ambition can alter friendships and personal integrity. The audience has the chance to reflect on their own youthful idealism and the often-harsh reality of adulthood. It's a bittersweet reminder of the passage of time and the inevitability of change. The backward progression of the plot is initially disorienting but ultimately profound, revealing the characters’ earlier, more idealistic selves in stark contrast to their later, more jaded personas.

Ad Astra's "Merrily We Roll Along" is a masterful production that manages to balance complexity and intimacy. The talented cast, under Tim Hill's direction, brings Sondheim's challenging score and intricate narrative to life with passion and devotion, proving that even the most complex narratives can be beautifully rendered on a small stage. It was a privilege to witness a boutique production that dove deep into character study and nuanced storytelling. I hope to witness more musicals from Ad Astra in the near future!


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