Sondheim and musical theatre fans rejoice! And stampede now to the box office to catch this more than splendid production.

This is the first in a series of HD productions, WEST END THEATRE SERIES, direct from London, brought to us by Cinema Live and Digital theatre. Following a sold out run at the Mernier Chocolate Factory, this was filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre during the production’s final performances.           Transferring magnificently from stage to screen, we are taken on a shattering emotional roller coaster ride as  we follow the relationships between the three close friends Mary , Charley and Franklin ( Frank) . It travels backwards in time over thirty years ( 1970s to 1950s)  in the entertainment business  to analyse what happened and the show features some of Sondheim’s classics including ‘Not A Day Goes By’ , “Good Thing Going’ and ‘Old Friends ‘.

It looks at life , love, courage and shattered illusions with a rueful sense of the  compromised choices , wrong decisions  and collapsed dreams of its characters .Sondheim’s at times spiky , difficult music is played magnificently and there are lyrical and joyous passages too .

The original Broadway production opened in 1981 to mixed reviews and closed after 16 performances and the show is often regarded as a ‘problem’ Sondheim piece .This Freidman production, however , sold out and garnered absolute raves from London critics .

Maria Friedman , triple Olivier award winner, makes a  triumphant  directorial debut with this huge full scale production led by Mark Umbers ( Franklin) , Jenna Russell ( Mary ) and Damian Humbley ( Charley) . The nifty choreography by Tim Jackson is Fosse inspired.

The first scenes, where we meet  the main characters in middle age, are set in the Seventies. Gradually, scene by scene, we travel back in time, finally arriving in 1957, when the three first meet and became devoted friends, full of exuberant hope for the future. “We’re the movers and we’re the shapers,” they sing, “We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers”. They hope…

As a piece of theatrical craft MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG  more than dazzles, from the opening vividly depicted embarrassing Hollywood party, when the characters’ dreams and friendship have more than soured , to the poignant joyous hope of their first meeting , on sighting a Sputnik (‘It’s a miracle!’). The score ranges from the touchingly emotional to the brilliantly comic, often with a jazzy swing to the music that hints at something darker beneath. Soutra Gilmour’s snazzy designs neatly encapsulate the changing times and fashions.

Famous composer-turned-film producer Frank Shepherd apparently has it all. Music is his life, his passion. When opportunities occur to become rich and famous , he takes them.  However the terribly handsome Umbers hauntingly reveals the gaping vacuum of unhappiness at the core of his life with the brooding, introspective longing of a man who now recognises  he has taken some wrong turns  and is now living with forever tarnished regrets.

As his one-time best friend, lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas, Humbley wonderfully portrays  his bitter disappointment in his friend, and his own cruel betrayal of him in a meltdown  live on tv in a show stopping theatrical  tour-de-force number,’ Franklin Shepherd Inc.’ brings the house down and leads to their irreparable rift .

Mary, their  writer friend ( best seller author) whose unrequited , hidden love for Frank end up shaping and defining her life,  is played magnificently by Russell. She ends up in an alcoholic decline , giving a searing ,very powerful performance in the first scenes , very moving later ( earlier) .Frank however is oblivious and we  meet the trio of the women that Frank  has romantic entanglements with  – his first and second wives Beth and Gussie, and  his mistress Meg – Clare Foster, Josefina Gabrielle and Zizi Strallen in sensational performances . Foster is heartbreaking in Act1 in the middle of the acrimonious divorce and ‘Not A Day Goes By’.. Gabrielle  is a show-stopping revelation ( in Act 2 the sexy ‘Cabaret’- style ‘Musical Husbands’ finale is just one example)  in the seemingly effortless but affected , shallow sophistication of a Broadway star who has clawed her way to the top from being a producer’s secretary to his wife, and then dumps him for Frank.

Has a running time of 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval. The film has received the endorsement of Sondheim himself who has said of the production,-‘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.” Hear hear!

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG which screens at selected theatres this November.