Director Maria Friedman's Menier Chocolate Factory production, which was filmed onstage in July at the Harold Pinter Theatre, at the end of its West End transfer, comes across wonderfully well on the film, which was shown Oct. 17 at a press screening in Manhattan with Sondheim and a visibly excited Friedman in attendance.
Merrily, of course, is the 1981 musical which effectively ended Sondheim's eight-show collaboration with producer/director Harold Prince. The original production was unworkable, with a visibly troubled tryout period followed by a dismal reception and quick closing. The strength of the score guaranteed an afterlife, including a couple of major regional productions — in 1985 and 1992 — for which the authors made significant revisions. Merrily has been widely performed over the last 20 years, although it has thus far not made it back to Broadway.
The press materials for the Digital Theatre release include this uncharacteristic statement from Sondheim, who rarely lavishes praise on his own work: "This production of Merrily We Roll Along is not only the best I've seen but one of those rare instances where casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts."
As an inveterate viewer of Merrilys here and there, over the decades, I must say: the man is right. I did not attend this production in London, but the filmed version reveals a Merrily with a difference. We have seen artistically successful productions, notably those at the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Festival and at City Center Encores! in 2012, but this new Maria Friedman/Menier Chocolate Factory version is the first I have found wholly successful, without reservation.
I suppose that the prospects of a Broadway transfer were complicated by the critical acclaim garnered by the Encores! version, which opened nine months before the Menier production. Even so, I expect that Friedman's production — either with the original London cast or a new, American one — would be most welcome on Broadway today. Mark Umbers does a good job in the unlikable role of Franklin Shepard. (If ever the audience likes Frank, the show is off-kilter.) Jenna Russell, who received a Tony Award nomination for the 2008 transfer of the Menier Sunday in the Park with George, is searing as the caustically abrasive Mary Flynn. Her desperate, unrequited love for Frank is nakedly on view here. (This might be accentuated by the camerawork and editing. Friedman, who played this same role in the 1985 Leicester Haymarket production, makes sure that we catch every important line and reaction.) Damian Humbley, too, makes a wonderful Charley Kringas. He scores with his virtuosic show-piece, "Franklin Shepard, Inc.", naturally, but also brings a depth I've never noticed in performance to "Good Thing Going." Clare Foster, as Beth, is especially good in "Not a Day Goes By," while Russell is at her most effective in the three-way reprise of that song.
All told, this is as fine a rendition of Merrily as you've likely seen, and the filming enhances, rather than detracts from, the performance. Sondheim fans should mark Oct. 23 on their calendars at once.