Merrily We Roll Along (Menier Chocolate Factory, until 9 March) lets you escape the winter cold to a showbiz party in a Bel Air beach house. Still, despite its summery setting, Stephen Sondheim’s musical has a stock-taking feel that suits it to a run at the changing of the years.
‘How did you get to be here?’ the opening chorus asks Hollywood mega-success Franklin Shepard (played with charisma by Mark Umbers), who has alienated his friends and lost the will to live. George Furth’s book answers with a stepwise journey back in time from 1976, putting meticulous reverse engineering to touching effect.
A wistful tune Franklin picks out on the piano turns out to be from his first hit — before he sold out. Then, in an ambivalent moment outside the divorce court, Franklin and Beth (Clare Foster) sing a charged duet we learn later was their wedding song. A simple device this; but it works. It takes a virtuoso turn when, breaking with his partner on live TV, Damian Humbley (as Charley Kringas) stunningly recreates with just his voice the piano, phone and typewriter we’ll later see the two hopefuls using to write their first songs.
By the time the action has rewound to the 1950s, you feel this was about more than Franklin. It wasn’t only for him that the hope of these exciting decades gradually gave way to disillusionment. If there is such a thing as collective memory, Maria Friedman’s masterful production knows how to nudge it.