Merrily We Roll Along - NYMT - Southwark Playhouse Elephant
The next generation of performers take on the Sondheim classic
The final outing of the National Youth Musical Theatre’s 2023 seasons sees the rising stars perform a beloved hit show that across the pond is about to have a star-studded return to Broadway. With high expectations, in part due to the plethora of recognisable alumni that NYMT have produced, the musical somewhat disappoints but pockets of promise scatter the stage.
This show saw the reuniting of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth who in reverse tell the story of three best friends, Frank, Charley and Mary as they navigate life, love and success. Frank is a gifted and suave composer and eventual producer who when paired with Charley, a writer and lyricist sparks fly. Mary is a novelist and journalist turned theatre critic who supports the musical duo in their endeavours, forever in love with Frank. Wedges are driven into the group through success seekers and money, the musical steeped in dramatic irony as the audience knows the fate that awaits the wide-eyed and youthful people we see at the start of the show.
Merrily We Roll Along requires significant transformation in age and maturity, the weight of stress and struggle steadily being undone and the cast, through no fault of their own, are unable to find that authenticity. There lacks a truthfulness and understanding to the performances that only experience can bring. The direction too is messy and lacks an awareness for the tricky Southwark Playhouse Elephant space with sightlines often blocked by ensemble members and entire scenes were played out watching the back of an actor’s head - particularly if like me you were sat on the side of the thrust stage.
Several performers do manage to shine. As Mary, Madeline Morgan knocks it out of the park with her silky vocals, finding emotional depth and nuance in the challenging role. Equally, Sophie Lagden does well as Gussie, the unsubtle force that spawns divisions wherever she goes, continually seeking success and the spotlight. Toby Owers and Thomas Oxley do well as Frank and Charley respectively, Oxley particularly effective in his song ‘Franklin Shepard Inc.’ The pair work nicely together but like much of the production are unable to find the peaks and troughs to succinctly deliver the story. The supporting cast and ensemble each gift capable individual performances but the space quickly feels cluttered during the larger numbers.
There is no shortage of talent within the next generation and I am excited to see each one develop and hone their musical theatre skillset but with poor staging and a demanding musical, a polished performance remains out of reach.
Photography - Konrad Bartelski