Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Compromise at the Watermill

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Compromise at the Watermill

Article excerpt

Doyle's company for Merrily performs with gusto and finesse

It's undeniable in these budget-conscious times that director John Doyle has created a new template for giving a new look (and sound) to Stephen Sondheim's repertoire. A show like Sweeney Todd was irretrievably compromised in the process of using a massively reduced ensemble of actor-musicians, so that instead of the famous declaration to an artist in another Sondheim classic to "give us more to see," there was, in fact, far less of it than had ever been seen or heard before on a West End or Broadway stage. But what about a show like Merrily We Roll Along, where compromise is not only the subject but also a fact of its previous lives, starting with its first?

It was, of course, just two years after the 1979 creative peak of Sweeney Todd that Sondheim and director Hal Prince had the biggest commercial flop of their collaborative partnership with Merrily We Roll Along, which ran for just 16 performances in its original 1981 Broadway production. So it is perhaps appropriate that John Doyle, whose Newbury-originated production of Sweeney Todd went on to the West End and Broadway and launched him on an international career, should return to the Watermill Theatre (Jan. 16-March 8, 2008) for what he has declared is his last production there. He's made a bold attempt to retrieve and re-imagine Merrily.

This time it starts to make sense that one character will play the dominant instrument of the evening - a piano. Franklin Shepard is, after all, a composer. But in the first of a series of the kind of perverse staging choices that are also a Doyle trademark, the piano sits at the front of the stage throughout. As a result, whenever Franklin, played by Sam Kenyon, is at the keyboard, this becomes the first musical production I know of to repeatedly offer a view of the back of the head of its leading man. …

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