Friday, August 2, 2013

Stuart Munro Letters From London: Merrily We Roll Along, Timber!

Letters from London #3
by Stuart Munro

Can you believe I’m back in my Cathedral town again?! This time not for work, but for a choir tour which (sadly) signals that my time in England is coming to an end. But before it does, I have more shows to tell you all about! In this letter, Merrily we Roll Along and Timber!

I first saw Sondheim’s oft-underappreciated masterpiece, Merrily we Roll Along at my local university with my sister when I was 15 or so. I don’t know why exactly, but we both became obsessed with the show and listened to its score over and over again, learning it inside and out. In the 17 years since, I haven’t had the chance to see it anywhere, and I was beginning to think I might never get to.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived in London to find that the Menier Chocolate Factory had transferred its well-loved new production to the West End, and that my flatmate had just gotten an email offering discounted seats for a few nights one week. I convinced her to take advantage of the offer, and before long I was hearing those familiar trumpet blasts from the overture, live for the first time in over a decade.

Since its infamous failure on Broadway in 1981, Merrily has been revived and reworked several times

Merrily tells the story of three friends – how they meet, how they find success together, and how they fall apart – but with a twist. The story unfolds backwards in time, beginning when everything has fallen apart, and ending when everything is beginning. In this, it follows the format of the play it’s based on, written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Since its infamous failure on Broadway in 1981, Merrily has been revived and reworked several times, garnering critical acclaim and finding a strong following among Sondheim fans. This new production enjoyed a sold-out run in its original venue and is in the midst of a successful West End transfer. Directed by Maria Friedman (herself an actor who starred in a 1992 production), this Merrily is filled with emotion and pain and joy and hope and loss. As the first notes of the show’s final song began to play out, I found myself weeping – partly because I had finally seen, in my adult life, the show I’d obsessed over for so long; and partly because this production had managed to capture all the complex and confusing youthful angst that it relies on, without ever becoming merely self-indulgent and angry. As the characters sang: “Feel the flow. Hear what’s happening – we’re what’s happening! Long ago, all we had was that funny feeling saying someday we’ll send ‘em reeling – looks like maybe we can! Someday just began,” the joy of that promise, and the pain of its loss, came together in a way that left me breathless.

The following night, for something completely different, we went to see Cirque Alfonse’s Québécois Lumber Jack Circus, Timber!. I’d never heard of this troupe before, but came across them while celebrating Canada Day in Trafalgar Square. They’re currently making their UK première and just finished a run at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Cirque Alfonse is a family affair, and was born several years ago when brother and sister Antoine and Julie Carabinier Lépine decided to make their father’s dream of being on stage come true. For his 60th birthday, they staged a circus show in the family’s barn in the backwoods of Québec, and the rest is history! Ever since, Cirque Alfonse has been entertaining people with its unique combination of humour, skill, and absolutely mental circus skills (imagine standing on someone’s shoulders and juggling with three others on the ground . . . using razor sharp hand axes).

There’s no attempt at a plot or story, but that’s OK. Timber! is pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and what it may lack in finesse, it more than makes up for with style and flare.

I’m in my final days in London, but I’ll have one more letter before I return to Toronto!

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