Merrily We Roll Along is currently playing in the West End for a commercial run for the very first time in its 30+ year history. Maria Friedman’s production opened to more 5* reviews than any show in the West End’s history and its transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory (a production reviewed on this site) to a bigger stage is for the better in every respect. The intimate stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre (usually a playhouse) is the perfect home for Soutra Gilmour’s multi-purpose set and allows the company more freedom of movement than the confines of their previous home. Having the 9 piece band in the pit rather than on stage creates a clearer, richer sound than before too. But most importantly, Merrily has never felt so cohesive before – there are rich textures and layers here from every member of the cast and, unlike many musicals, you can hear every line of both speech and song as clear as a bell. You need to in Merrily too – the more you absorb the deeper and richer your understanding of the material. Not a line of Stephen Sondheim’s superlative (slightly jazz infused) score and lyrics, nor George Furth’s witty and moving book, are wasted. In this extraordinary structure – the musical is a series of 9 scenes moving backwards in time between 1976 and 1957, focussing on the lives of two songwriters and their writer friend – there are lines of text and melody used later in the piece which movingly echo the ‘future’ developments that we’ve already seen.

In a West End full of overblown and often overhyped musicals, here is the thinking man’s musical and this production has humanity, irony, ideals, love, life, loss and so much more. Maria Friedman deliberately chose older actors who had real life experience they could bring to the part, rather than ‘ageing up’ younger actors (as indeed Friedman herself did when playing Mary at the Leicester Haymarket in 1992). Inevitably, despite the youthful expressions used as the characters get ‘younger’, some of the actors look too old in the final two scenes, but much more is gained than lost in this tale examining the compromise of ideals for success. The performances are all even deeper and more multi layered now too – time and experience in the roles have raised this cast’s game even further.

Mark Umbers’ Frank makes a remarkable transformation from a man who seemingly sold out on the Hollywood dream, with meaningless friendships, to his younger self starting out with song writing partner Charley – his mistakes, wrong turns, bad decisions poignant in their truthful telling. Damian Humbley’s hard working and reliable Charley, happily married, finally runs out of patience with Frank’s gradual selling out of their partnership. And Jenna Russell’s Mary, in a performance of great comedy and irony, is the girl who wants more than friendship from Frank but never gets it, instead watching him enter into a series of relationships which he destroys through his own selfishness and greed, while gradually descending into alcoholism herself. The supporting performances are equally good, especially Josephina Gabrielle’s Gussie, who will stop at nothing for Broadway success, and Clare Foster as Frank’s first wife Beth, devastated by his betrayal. But the ensemble is another of this production’s strengths and Merrily’s don’t put a foot wrong in a multitude of roles and situations, also guiding the transitions back in time with the show’s signature theme.

Merrily We Roll Along – a show that flopped disastrously on its Broadway premiere – has at last found what could be the definitive production. Friedman understands every intricacy and conveys that clearly. The limited West End season ends on 27 July but this is a production of great quality that should not be missed. Word is that it will then transfer to Broadway where it truly deserves to finally be “a hit”. It’s impossible to buck the trend with this one – 5*.