Monday, December 16, 2013

Theater on film: the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG gets well-deserved, encore screenings nationally

There was a time, long ago, when TrustMovies used to attend legitimate theater several times a week. Prices were much more affordable back then, but even he missed the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along because the show closed suddenly, so all he ended up with were tickets to be refunded. He bought the original cast album however, wore it out, and always imagined that the critics must have had their heads up their posteriors not to love a show with music and lyrics this wonderful.

Over the years much tinkering has been done on this musical, resulting in various "revivals" that still, according to the sources, didn't quite make it. Even so, my partner and I several years ago happened to catch a small, off-off-Broadway revival down in the East Village done by, I believe, a group of players that originated in Brooklyn and was mostly amateur. No matter, they did such a staggeringly good job with this show that we sat there in our seats, crying for joy at the wondrous finale and applauding like mad with the rest of the audience at the curtain call. (What's more, the little group's rendition of the show's final song, Our Time, proved even better and more moving than that of this new production.)

Now comes a version of Merrily... that Mr. Sondheim himself has decreed the best ever. I haven't seen enough of those many productions to say for sure, but this "videod" version of one of the performances from London's Menier Chocolate Factory -- which won a host of awards and had an extended, sold-out run earlier this year --  is so wonderful in almost every way that, at last, critics and audiences alike can rejoice. It seems they finally got it right.

"They" would be the director Maria Friedman, and her terrific cast, all of whom do justice to the book (by the late George Furth), and music and lyrics by Sondheim. The three leads -- Damian Humbley (above, center) as Charley Kringas, Olivier award winner and Tony nominee Jenna Russell (above, right) as Mary Flynn, and Mark Umbers (above, left) as Franklin Shepard -- are splendid, first moment to last. Every bit as wonderful is the young woman who plays Beth Spencer, Claire Foster (below). Together these four produce the kind of musical theater magic that creates permanent golden memories.

As anyone interested in musical theater by now knows, Merrily..., based on the play by Kaufman and Hart, proceeds backwards in time from our trio's pinnacle of "success" until they are kids again, just beginning their adult life. This makes for plenty of irony and sadness as plans and dreams go by the wayside to be replaced with... well, other things.

Sondheim's score makes the most of this, and he delivers some of his most beautiful songs -- Our Time (above), Not A Day Goes By, and Good Thing Going, as well as some of his finest up-tempo, "pattery" numbers like Old Friends and Opening Doors (below). The fun and the surprisingly deep emotions engendered by these songs and scenes, as performed by the expert cast -- which speak to all of us about dreams deferred and ambitions unfulfilled -- should leave musical theater-lovers somewhere near seventh heaven.

If what we saw in the video link that we watched is anything like what theater audiences will see, do not expect ravishing visuals. This is pretty standard stuff, with the usual close-ups and such that call attention to the moment but do not allow, as does the real theater experience, the viewer to look where s/he prefers at any particular time. The sound however is excellent, so the music and lyrics come across full-strength.

After successful and often sold out nationwide screenings last month, this filmed (well, "videoed") presentation, distributed by Specticast, will be making its encore showing around the country, beginning Monday, Dec. 23, through Feb. 28 of next year. So there should be plenty of opportunity to view this soon to be legendary production -- and at prices far below what you'd have to pay to see it in London (or on Broadway -- the hoped-for move to which no longer appears to be in the cards).

To see the complete listing of which cities and theaters will be screening Merrily We Roll Along, and when, simply click here and then scroll down to the very lengthy list.

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