Merrily We Roll Along follows three best friends, Frank, Charlie, and Mary, as they navigate the trials and turbulence of youth, maintaining their friendship amidst rapidly changing circumstances and priorities and hustling in the unforgiving world of Hollywood showbiz. This musical sounds like your standard sentimental Sondheim, with one key twist: the story is told backwards, starting from the end when everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong, and gradually turning the clocks back until we end at a simpler, more innocent time. This dramatic irony is guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings, and even the joyful moments were tinged with bittersweetness, as the audience knew from the beginning that all the happiness was only temporary. Told over a period of 20 years from 1957 to 1976, this production accurately evoked the atmosphere and nostalgia of each time period, with an energetic cast that burst with animation and charisma, and a truly spectacular band.
I must admit I had my reservations about how well this musical would be pulled off. Having seen director Sam Woof McColl’s dark and disturbing production Crave by Sarah Kane, and his self-penned play on insomnia With One Eye Open before that, it surprised me that his next project was a musical, a significant departure from his previous work. However, I could not have been more astounded by this production. Firstly, I must commend the choreography, which stood out to me as one of the technical highlights, especially given that choreography is a notoriously difficult thing to pitch correctly (too much dancing and it’s tacky, too little and it’s dull). There was always something visually interesting going on no matter how many people were on stage, and the ordered chaos of the ensemble was simple but effective, not to mention very aesthetically pleasing to watch. The set was also very dynamic and changed from scene to scene, the only constant being a staircase that doubled as a skyline of high-rise buildings; this was an inspired choice, though I did feel the execution could have been better, as the materials used for the set made it look a little like a school art project. The costumes, however, were stunningly colourful and represented the characters and their personalities extremely well at every stage of their lives. I particularly enjoyed how the passage of time was represented, whether it was by spelling out the year on cardboard boxes in the background, on tiny ornaments atop a piano, or on a small blackboard or briefcase carried across the stage by a member of the ensemble. Though some of the American accents were stronger than others, and at times there were enunciation issues with the very fast-paced lyrics (which wasn’t helped by the music that sometimes overpowered the mics), there was clear attention to detail in perfecting the visual experience for the audience in an utterly seamless fashion, and what was achieved was no small feat.
The cast for this show could not have been more superb. Having seen almost every single member of the cast in several productions in the past, I felt there wasn’t a single weak link in the entire cast of 20 (including one exceedingly adorable child). Emilio Campa (Frank), Joe Winter (Charlie), and Maddy Page (Mary) were utter perfection as the central trio, and the regression of their character arcs as we went back in time was beautifully told. Campa’s energy as he revelled in the glory of his success amidst an adoring crowd starkly contrasted with his younger days as a struggling but optimistic idealist, and the conflicts of priorities he experienced in between those two stages was enthralling to watch. Winter provided both joy and pathos as the forgotten sidekick, and his two riveting solos were an accurate representation of his immense vocal talent; “Franklin Shepard Inc.” was a high-energy vindictive tirade against Campa that was incredibly entertaining, and his rendition of “Good Thing Going” had several soaring notes that brought me to tears. However, the star of the show for me was easily Maddy Page’s Mary, a masterful singing, dancing, and acting triple threat; she is one of the very few students in Oxford to have performed extensively in both plays and musicals, with many notable credits to her name. Her character is the epitome of the phrase “inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist”: her first appearance as a jaded alcoholic made perfect sense once you saw her earlier days as a well-meaning friend scrambling to keep Frank and Charlie’s friendship together, secretly harbouring feelings for Frank, and urging the two of them to cling onto the past until it could no longer justify maintaining their relationship in the present. Page’s sense of desperation and loss of hope was acutely felt in her moving performance, and I truly feel this was a role she was born to play.
Apart from the central cast, commendations must be handed out to the supporting members. Grace Albery as the seductive and materialistic Gussie was a vision in her many splendid outfits, and performed some sensual, jazzy numbers that truly captivated the audience (a particular highlight for me was when she pinned a man to the floor with the sharp heel of her shoe). Ella Tournes had a truly brilliant scene as a radio interviewer in the first act that had me doubled over in laughter from her impeccable comic timing. Hannah Andrusier as Beth showed some impressive vocal versatility, in particular during her deeply tender and affecting “Not A Day Goes By”, which brought many members of the audience to uncontrollable tears.
The show ends with the three friends united on a rooftop watching Sputnik in the sky, their ages not too far from the students in the audience. It was in that moment that I truly understood why this show was the perfect choice for a university production; so many of us are looking to futures brimming with opportunity, with difficult choices that may lead us to make some sacrifices we regret along the way. Wiping tears from my cheeks, I walked out of the Oxford Playhouse with a renewed sense of purpose: to treasure the friendships I had, to never lose sight of my values and priorities, and to stay grounded and hopeful for the future, come what may.