Merrily We Roll Along
National Youth Music Theatre

With such talent on stage this production deserves to be seen by many

The National Youth Music Theatre’s production of Merrily We Roll Along clearly demonstrates that the world of musical theatre is safe in the hands of the next generation!  From the opening bars of the overture under the musical direction of Leigh Stanford Thompson you know you are in for a treat.   Despite the challenge of having a split orchestra (4 on set and the rest in an anti-room) the musicianship is tight, and Sondheim’s difficult cross rhythms are played with ease.  This is no mean feat when you note that the 12 strong band is made up of people aged between 16 and 23!

Merrily We Roll Along is a complex show.  Not least the opening number which reveals to us the complicated life of successful film and musical composer, Franklin Shepard played by 19-year-old Toby Owers with an ease that disguises his age.  It’s 1980; Franklin is surrounded by lovers, admirers and hangers-on – but where are his friends?  This leads to the talented ensemble asking the question: “How did you get to be here?”. This Sondheim/Furth musical then moves back in time, episode by episode to show we how Franklin finds success and loses his way.

We soon see that Franklin was a member of a strong friendship group made up of Charley and Mary. Mary, who fell in love with Franklin (and his music) back in 1955 has never been brave enough to tell him.  Unrequited love has destroyed her life, as has her addictive personality.  Mary (played in this production by Madeleine Morgan) is a difficult role to make work. We see her first a cranky alcoholic – and as the show progresses, we see how she was the glue of the friendship, desperately trying to hold them together.  Madeleine plays this part as though it was written for her.  She may only be 21 but she handles the part of an older woman and love-sick young adult as though she has literally become 25 years older as the show goes on.  I predict a big future for this rising star.

So what to say of Charley Kringas played by Thomas Oxley?  In many ways his role is more difficult to portray not least because we don’t see him to begin with: the riff between him and Franklin is so deep and painful. This means it’s a challenge to establish the character when he does arrive, but not for Thomas.  Oxley’s delivery of typical Sondheim patter song Franklin Shepard, Inc is as good as (if not better) than any recording I have heard of this show.

I have selected the three leads of this production, but really this is unfair.  Director, Katherine Hare (Associate Director for Tina) has brought together an ensemble of amazing gifts that any West End Production would proud to have on board.  It’s impossible to spot a weak link and I was looking!  Wherever they find themselves on the tiny stage, the ensemble is fully present, committed and full of energy.  I loved some of the subtle directorial touches, such as actually having Franklin play the acoustic piano live on stage, rather than pretending; a thing we see so often even on the professional stage. Bravo!

Merrily we Roll Along is remembered as one of Sondheim’s Broadway flops running for 52 previews and 16 performances before closing.  The one major sadness for me around this production is that it is only running for 3 days.  With such talent on stage this production deserves to be seen by many.  Still, I consider it a privilege to have seen what the National Youth Music Theatre can do with a company of talented actors, musicians and production staff.  I encourage anyone to look out for any of the NYMT productions in the future. Based on this show you’ll be in for a treat.

This show was reviewed on the 24th August 2023.  Merrily We Roll Along is playing at the Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) until the 26th August 2023.  Tickets available here: Merrily We Roll Along - Southwark Playhouse

Review written by Paul Wood

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Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

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