Watching yesterday’s downpour, I had some reservations about this week’s production of Merrily We Roll Along in the Nun’s Garden in Queen’s College, directed by Ella McCarthy. Thankfully, the performance took place in the (dry) auditorium adjacent to the garden, and although the cast and band did a good job adjusting to the last-minute change, one wonders what might have been had the weather permitted.
This Sondheim musical tells the story of a successful Broadway composer-cum-Hollywood producer’s rise to fame – except the story is told in reverse, starting with a party celebrating his success in 1976, ending with his humble beginnings as a serviceman in 1957, and covering the highs and lows of his social life along the way. It’s a complex and sprawling musical that requires a strong cast and, crucially, space to work. Unfortunately, the auditorium offered a limited stage for the actors, and while this circumstance couldn’t be helped, the blocking was fairly static for such an energetic show. Moreover, the move indoors meant that the onstage band tended to drown out the singers: hopefully the rest of the run will see better weather.
On the whole, the relatively small cast do a commendable job handling large ensemble scenes; Greta Cottage in particular stands out for her series of vivid and entertaining cameos. But fundamentally this is a show about three friends, and Freddie Crowley, Henry Jacobs, and Eloise Kenny-Ryder are excellent as Frank, Charley, and Mary. The trio create a fully believable chemistry, and the reverse-time conceit of the musical shows off the development of their relationships in a really engaging way, culminating in a slightly saccharine, but nevertheless affecting, view of their youthful beginnings. Crowley’s vocals must be commended, in particular for being consistently able to rise above the sound of the band. Meanwhile, Jacobs was utterly endearing as the put-upon sidekick Charley (his typewriter percussion skills in the second act were a highlight), and Kenny-Ryder’s comic asides always won a laugh.
The band performed superbly under Matthew Jackson’s musical direction, but it was a shame not to see the full number (although a good decision to streamline it for the indoor performance). Marisa Crane’s costumes were delightful, covering the extensive timespan of the play and evoking iconic styles from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Overall, this is an entertaining rendition of a unique musical, and despite the fact that the performance I viewed had to contend with disruptive weather, it was a worthy effort from all involved.