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Review: Merrily We Roll Along at Ad Astra

Updated: Jun 4

Review by Sarah Skubala

 

Ad Astra’s debut musical production is Sondheim’s masterpiece Merrily We Roll Along, and, like the title of the Act Two song, it’s a hit! Director Tim Hill has successfully managed to condense a full-scale Broadway musical into a show using a cast of eight performers and an orchestra of three in their intimate, 40-seater black box theatre.

 

First written in 1981, Merrily We Roll Along premiered at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway and is based on the 1934 play of the same name. The show is currently on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Charley, where it’s been nominated for 7 Tony Awards including Best Revival.

 

The story begins in 1976 and uniquely moves backwards through time, ending in 1957 and centres around Franklin Shepard, a wealthy Hollywood producer. Frank is estranged from his son, Frank Jr, and his musical collaborator friend, Charley. His second marriage is about to break down over another affair with an ingenue, and ex-wife Beth is long out of the picture. He’s also about to lose his most loyal friend, Mary. As the story unfolds, we see how Frank went from a talented composer to a corporate sell-out, and what he gave up to get there. It’s a bittersweet story that serves as a kind of cautionary tale without a resolution, but it’s wildly entertaining in the way that only musicals can be.

 

Musical Director Ben Murray has delivered a score that was tailored perfectly for the intimate space. The orchestra of three, Murray included, are in the upstage corners but sit neatly tucked away and don’t distract from the performers. The set is dominated by wood veneer panelling and includes a real piano, a chaise longue and a window box containing a projection of a New York City skyline. Clever projections above the window box keep on top of time and place as they go back through the years.

 

Vocally, the cast was fantastic and packed a punch singing together as a small but powerful ensemble. Earworms abounded, including the title song ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and ‘Old Friends,’ which both contained melodies that recurred throughout the show. My absolute favourite was the jazzy ‘Opening Doors,’ sung in 1959 towards the end of the show. Starting as a song between the three leads, Frank (Stephen Hirst), Mary (Natasha Veselinovic) and Charley (Alex Watson), it cleverly featured Mary and Charley on their typewriters, typing in time to the music. The trio expertly sang quick one-line updates to each other about their lives and their creative progress as struggling artists. Then the action moved to the office of Big Cheese Joe Josephson, who rejected the guys’ newly penned musical as it didn’t have enough catchy melodies (humorously sung by Chris Kellett delivering the news using a catchy melody). It’s in this number that Frank first meets Beth (Heidi Enchelmaier) in a clever audition scene within the song. Hirst, Watson, Veselinovic and Enchelmaier were especially outstanding in their harmonies in the song’s closing moments.

 

Other musical highlights included the poignant finale ‘Our Time’ led by Stephen Hirst as Frank, also skilled on the piano, the highly energetic patter number ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc.’ by Alex Watson as Charley, who landed all the comic one-line zingers throughout the show, and ‘Gussie’s Opening Number’ featuring Jordan Twigg perfectly cast as the antagonistic femme fatale. ‘Not a Day Goes By – Reprise’ was a heartfelt number by Enchelmaier and Veselinovic that emphasised Beth’s love and Mary’s unrequited love for Frank by having them sing together with slightly different lyrics. Chelsea Burton and Liam O’Byrne juggled the most characters in the cast, showing comic versatility and stage presence in all their roles.

 

Watching Merrily We Roll Along reminded me just how uplifting a good musical can be and left me eager to see more of them. Here’s hoping Ad Astra brings more musicals to their future seasons, especially once they take over their new, much larger premises.

 

With a season that runs until 8th June but with most remaining shows already sold out, lovers of quality musicals should be flocking to see this show

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