Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), 21 Oct – 27 Nov, 2021
Book: George Furth
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Andrew Coshan, Georgina Hopson, Evan Lever, Vidya Makan, Elise McCann, Ainsley Melham, Tiarne Sue Yek, Aaron Tsindos
Images by Phil Erbacher
The story begins in 1976 and with each scene, we are moved back further in time, eventually to 1957. This 2021 Hayes Theatre staging of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is a nostalgic delight, as we look back to simpler times of the previous century, taking the opportunity to relish in a tale about the loss of innocence, that seems little more than quaint by what we are used to today.
Young people from that bygone era, like those of our current times, were deeply embroiled in socio-economic upheaval. However, it is evident from George Furth’s book (on which Sondheim’s musical was based), that critical events in 1960’s America, such as the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, were able to be conveniently swept aside, in favour of a brand of sentimental reminiscence intent on making life seem so insular, in its wilful naivete.
We are made to examine the friendship between three white artistic types, whose lot in life were dependant only on luck and on the ruggedness of the individual. Their narratives are exempt from being tainted by their proximity to power, and their complicity in social structures that are manifestly unjust. It is perhaps a relief that this form of storytelling, is no longer quite as widely condoned in today’s, shall we say, more politically conscious climate. Black lives always did matter, but how we think and talk about those associated issues seem, thankfully, to have irrevocably changed.
On the other hand, many do continue to enjoy the escapism of the theatrical arts. These increasingly trying times, have made us feel an irresistible need to seek momentary refuge, in things that are less god damned serious, and in the world of musical theatre, there is perhaps nothing better than to resort to the great songs of Sondheim. They always bear a sense of repetitive familiarity, yet reliably refreshing; toe-tappers that will prove uplifting even at times of awesome pessimism, and because they were written so long ago, we can let ourselves off the hook, for indulging in something that is so completely devoid of wokeness.
Musical direction for the production is brilliantly harnessed by Andrew Worboys, who knows exactly how to make everything shine and sparkle, for a welcome return to communal entertainment after many months of sustained isolation. In the many instances when one becomes painfully aware of the unbearable flimsiness of the characters in “Merrily We Roll Along”, there is always Worboys’ omnipotent work to return to, for something to properly sink our teeth into.
Direction is provided by Dean Bryant, who adds stylish embellishment whenever possible, including clever incorporation of Dave Bergman’s video projections that widen our experience of time and space in the intimate auditorium. Set design by Jeremy Allen is wonderfully chic, as are Melanie Liertz’s costumes, and Veronique Bennett’s beautiful golden lights transport us somewhere decidedly cosier and softer, than the harsh realities of the outside world. It is noteworthy that Bryant’s ability to fabricate a sense of gravity for the staging is remarkable, considering the often banal quality of what is actually being explored.
Performer Ainsley Melham is sensational in the role of Charley Kringas, bringing incredible precision and unexpected complexity to a personality who can otherwise easily be thought of as prosaic. Elise McCann sings every note with clarity and gusto, and as Mary Flynn, McCann is memorably feisty, in a show that has problems allowing enough depth into any of its women characters. Playing Franklin Shepard is Andrew Coshan, who although demonstrates commitment, has a tendency to come across too ordinary and somewhat immaterial, for someone who is meant to occupy the very centre of the story. Supporting players are generally excellent, with Georgina Hopson and Vidya Makan particularly endearing with the effortless comedy they deliver at every turn.
It is true, that we cannot make a better future, without knowing the past. It is also true, that to live in the past, is detrimental to efforts for meaningful progress. The reverse chronology of “Merrily We Roll Along” shows us the history of old friends, so that we can see the value in redemption, along with the importance of embracing humility as a guiding principle in relationships. Sorry seems to be the hardest word, but as proven time and again, it sure pays dividends.