Originally produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory, this revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical has already garnered the Critics' Circle Award (best musical). However, the show initially struggled to make headway with audiences when it opened back in 1981 – closing after a handful or two of post-preview performances. That seems inconceivable these days, especially as the musical sports a clutch of typically gorgeous Sondheim songs.
The story revolves around a gaggle of three friends: Mary, Frank and Charley. Mary is a writer, Frank is a composer and Charley is a lyricist. Frank and Charley start out in their careers writing musicals with each other, but as Frank becomes successful as a Hollywood producer the sparkle in their relationship fades. The story is set in America and ranges over a period of some twenty years and is recounted in reverse chronological order. So, we start off in 1976 and progressively work back in time to discover when the friends first met, and how their mutual ambitions, aspirations, and friendship developed and disintegrated.
The three principal characters are all extremely well-defined and believable. Jenna Russell's Mary is in love with Frank, but her deeply-felt emotions are not reciprocated, and her life is on a downward spiral almost from the moment she first meets him. She provides much of the humour in the story, and also a considerable amount of the pathos as she succumbs to alcoholism. Damian Humbley's Charley is a down-to-earth man who also loves Frank as a creative partner. Mr Humbley got the biggest round of applause of the evening for his song 'Franklin Shepard Inc'. And Mark Umbers is also in excellent form as Franklin Shepard strikes just the right balance to describe a man who, though anxious to succeed, does not intentionally set-out to leave his friends behind.
In the technical department, Soutra Gilmour's effective design seems inspired by David Hockney's pop art painting entitled 'A bigger Splash'. A single-story Californian house is the main feature of the first scene. It almost begs for a pool to be installed right in front of it – as in Hockney's picture. Whatever the inspiration, Ms Gilmour's set certainly evokes, in a relatively simple form, the appropriate sense of material success.
Director Maria Friedman should know this musical pretty well since she has previously played the role of Mary, and also sung in several other shows by Stephen Sondheim. It is apt then that this provides her West End directorial debut, and Ms Friedman makes the most of the opportunity with a sensitively orchestrated and authoritative piece of work which perfectly balances all the elements of the production. And the singing is, quite simply, first-rate and there is an excellent band under the direction of Catherine Jayes.
In a way, I find myself in two minds about 'Merrily We Roll Along'. On the one hand Stephen Sondheim's music is every bit as striking and entrancing as others from this unique master of the genre. The story, though, is not quite so satisfying, even if it encapsulates some pervasive truths. Of course, as time moves on, we all grow up and that means we change – often whether we want to or not – and some friends and aspirations get left behind along the way. That all makes for a believable and interesting story. But the fact that Messrs Sondheim and Furth chose to write about a composer, writer and lyricist rather distances the audience from the characters. If they had been from other walks of life we might have empathised more with them. That minor gripe aside, there is more than enough to admire here in all aspects of the show, and especially in Stephen Sondheim's wonderfully evocative and complex music that at times is breathtaking. That said, if I was forced to make a choice, I think I prefer 'Sunday in the Park With George' or 'Sweeney Todd', but this still has that essential Sondheim magic to savour which for many people will be more than enough.
"Superlative staging...It is, make no mistake, one of the great musical productions of this or any other era "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"A flawed diamond, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 musical flop polishes up beautifully in this revival by Maria Friedman. The show is so astute, it's hard to believe this story of three friends – creative types who start out wanting to change the world but must face up to the disillusionments of middle age – originally crashed and burned on Broadway...It's a thrilling evening of musical theatre.
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"Amid the froth and the blockbusters, an intelligent musical like this is greatly welcome in the West End."
The Evening Standard
"Maria Friedman makes a remarkably assured directorial debut with a revival that is perfectly pitched and employs a standout cast."
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express
"Glorious revival. "
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph