Did you miss the Merrily We Roll Along, the backwards musical from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, when last year's British production was screened in movie theaters for one night only? The filmed versions of live performances, like Neil Patrick Harris in Company or the National Theatre's Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, come and go quickly, so you have to be on top of things to catch them.
The ones from Digital Theatre, however, are available to rent, buy or otherwise get a look at. That includes David Tennant and Catherine Tate taking on Benedick and Beatrice in a West End production of Much Ado About Nothing, the musical Into the Woods as performed outside in Regent's Park in London, and John Copley's 2009 production of La bohème from the Royal Opera House.
Merrily We Roll Along is the newest choice. Maria Friedman directed this 2012 London version of Merrily, the story of three friends traced backwards from the late 70s to the night they met on a rooftop in 1957 as Sputnik soared overhead. This Merrily began its life in the intimate space of the Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London's West End. It was filmed during its West End run, with its cast -- Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley as "Old Friends" Franklin Shepard, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas, Clare Foster as Frank's wife Beth, and Josefina Gabrielle as bad girl Gussie who snares Frank at a vulnerable moment --all captured on screen.
I was part of a viewing party that drove to Peoria to see Merrily We Roll Along in October, and we had mixed reactions. Yes, the material is terrific, and all three leads were very good. We were split on which one we liked best, although my favorite was Humbley's Charley, who was sympathetic, sweet, funny and an excellent match for songs like "Frank Shepard Inc." and "Good Thing Going." Umbers did a good job making Frank both attractive and a little twitchy, as if his emotions were close to the surface, while Russell grew on me as schlubby Mary, who yearns for Frank herself but never quite gets there. All three of them were beautiful singers, and the "Our Time" they ended with was lovely.
One of my friends was very impressed with Gabrielle, who was familiar from her turn as Laurey opposite Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma, and I agree that she was a lot appealing than most Gussies, who can be conniving and manipulative that she falls into the caricature trap. On the other hand... I didn't care at all for Foster as Beth. She and the actors who played her parents needed serious work on their American accents, plus she was more than a bit heavy-handed on the raw-boned "aw shucks" side of things.
In general, Friedman's production charted the tricky chronology of Merrily We Roll Along nicely, and it sounded and looked pretty darn good.
If you want to check it out for yourself, you can rent Merrily We Roll Along for $5.99, buy a standard copy for $12.99, or go for the High Def version for $15.99. If you prefer to pay in pounds or Euros, those options are also available.