stage review: Merrily We Roll Along

merrily-london-mark-damian
Mark Umbers (left) and Damian Humbley (right) in Huntington Theatre Company’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Photo credit @ huntingtontheatre.org

On Thursday, I got very exciting news.  I found out that one of the best theatre productions I have had the pleasure of seeing – Maria Friedman’s 2012-13 London production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along – has randomly been revived for a brief stint in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company.  And not only that, but two of the three leads – Mark Umbers (Frank) and Damian Humbley (Charley) – would be reprising their roles from London.  I was already going to be in Hartford this weekend to see the Les Miserables tour, so I figured, a detour to Boston can’t hurt, right?  So that same night my friends and I bought tickets for the Sunday matinee of Merrily, which is the best spontaneous decision I have made in a long time.

I love this production with all my heart.  So does Sondheim.  He was quoted as saying “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.”  I mean… I’m not sure what I can say on top of that, but I’ll do my best.

Merrily We Roll Along follows the story of three friends – Frank, Charley, and Mary – told in a backwards timeline.  Once inseparable, these three friends begin the story no longer on speaking terms, and over the course of the musical which spans twenty years, we slowly uncover everything that went wrong between them.  One recurring line is “how did you get to be here, what was the moment?” – this is a story about changing over time, growing apart from people, having to live with the decisions you’ve made.  Though it begins with an upbeat jazzy overture, this is the kind of story that gets under your skin and slowly but surely rips your heart out.

This production is an example of near-perfect casting.  The core trio work flawlessly together – they’re somehow able to manufacture the kind of easy chemistry that only comes from having known people for twenty years.  Eden Espinosa (known for having played Elphaba in Wicked) shines as the cynical and grounded Mary Flynn.  Even though she hadn’t worked with Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley in London, her performance fit this production like a glove.  Other noteworthy newcomers were Aimee Doherty as the glamorous and seductive Gussie, and Jennifer Ellis as Frank’s ex-wife Beth.

But it’s Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley that stand out to me, if only because this was my second opportunity to witness these stunning performances, and both seemed to pick up exactly where they left off with these roles back in 2013.  With the role of Charles Kringas, Damian Humbley strikes the right balance of humility and impatience – he’s consistently engaging to watch and his rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc” is an absolute tour de force.

Though this story is ostensibly about these three friends, it’s Franklin Shepard at the center – charismatic, charming, talented, fickle, sell-out Frank – and Mark Umbers carries off his performance with aplomb.  The reverse journey this character goes on is chronicled with such subtlety and sincerity – his posture and mannerisms slightly changing with each new stage of his life – that you find yourself believing for a second that this 44-year-old man is actually the 20-year-old that he plays by the end of the musical.  It’s a performance that’s wholly captivating in every sense of the word.  It’s the one that’s stayed with me the most since I saw this production in June 2013, and seeing him work his magic on stage again yesterday was a phenomenal experience.

Though the music with its recurring motifs drives this story forward (or backward, I guess), I don’t think you need to be a musical aficionado to connect with it.  If you’re someone who appreciates good performances and a story that’s both entertaining and deeply unsettling, I promise it is worth the trek to Boston.  I cannot recommend this production highly enough.  I only wish it were playing longer!

Also – thank you to Steph and Chelsea for being crazy enough to go along with my last minute Boston detour.  I’m so glad you guys also loved it.

Merrily We Roll Along is playing through Sunday, October 15 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.  Buy tickets here – there are excellent discounts available for students and anyone under 35!

7 thoughts on “stage review: Merrily We Roll Along

  1. THANKS FOR MAKING US SEE IT!! This show was amazing and this review captures ALL OF IT. The acting honestly blew my mind, the way Mark Umbers was able to transform backwards into someone in their 20s was SO GOOD, like his body language was fantastic. And at the beginning of the show I was like WHY is Mary in love with this guy?? And then you see his development backwards and you’re like…….oh. And a fun detail I noticed was that Charley wore gray converse throughout the show, but they kept getting newer with each scene as they traveled back in time D:

    Liked by 1 person

    • ANY TIME omg I’m just glad you guys loved it and weren’t like ‘Rachel you dragged us to Boston for THIS??’ hahaha. I mean I was pretty sure you’d like it since our tastes are so similar BUT STILL I AM THRILLED

      Mark Umbers is just on this plain of amazingness that I can barely even comprehend, like HOW are you making me suspend my disbelief and just accept that you are 25 years old?? He just captured the progression of the character PERFECTLY, like there wasn’t one exact moment when he turned into the person he becomes at the beginning of the musical, it’s all the little things that add up, and the Frank at the beginning and end are two totally different people but he bridges that gap so seamlessly and ahhhhh he is just so insanely good.

      OH MY GOD I noticed he was wearing converse but I didn’t notice that they were getting newer and this detail has WOUNDED ME 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • I KNOW, and it was so fascinating to watch a character develop backwards like that. And I loooved the very very end when it’s just him on the stage in the spotlight and his body language changed and it was as if he aged again and looked older and tired before he smiled back into the hopeful 20 year old, ALL IN THE SPACE OF LIKE 5 SECONDS. I was AMAZED.

        I was listening to some of the music on youtube last night haahah, I’M OBSESSED.

        Liked by 1 person

      • OMG I KNOW that final moment when he turns back into young Frank and smiles just DESTROYS ME like I’m already a wreck at that point and then it just TWISTS THE KNIFE.

        ahhhhhhh this makes me so happy!!! I know on the way home Ashley was scrolling through my phone trying to find something to listen to and then eventually we just put on one of the cast recordings and listened to that on repeat for three hours because like WHAT ARE YOU EVEN SUPPOSED TO LISTEN TO AFTER THAT

        ALSO isn’t the first act so much more painful when you know what’s coming??? When Charley turns to Frank in the opening number and says ‘how did you get to be here?’ I was sitting there like ‘oh no…… goodbye cruel world this is literally going to kill me.’

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I also went on a whirlwind weekend trip to New England over Canadian Thanksgiving where I FINALLY met Rachel and her friend, as well as Steph! Being the crazy wonderful people we are, we hit two musicals in two different cities, and although we weren’t very impressed with the current US Tour cast of Les Miserables, Merrily We Roll Along was fabulous and the kind of show you find yourself thinking about days later. Rachel’s written a review that perfectly sums up Merrily here. […]

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