“Never look back,” sings the cast in the opening number. It’s a lyric with a double irony. Firstly, the show itself is entirely about looking back; secondly, if Sondheim had never revisited the original version of the musical, we wouldn’t have this superb new production. The show famously flopped on its first outing in 1981 but the composer and his collaborator George Furth never gave up on it, and fine-tuning has produced the piece that Maria Friedman now directs, with playful zest and great poignancy.
Like Pinter’s Betrayal, the show tells a story in reverse, beginning with middle-aged disillusionment and spiralling backwards to the first, fateful encounter between the young protagonists. Like Betrayal, it thrives on irony as promises made in one scene are undermined by what has happened in the scene before. Though it doesn’t dig deeply enough into character or motivation, Friedman seizes on its overwhelming strength: catching, in the plot and in Sondheim’s subtle, restless music, the universal regret for lost youth and hope. She balances breezy delivery with a long undertow of sadness and catches the show’s greater resonance for an America troubled by lost dreams.
The show begins in 1976 at a swanky party thrown by Hollywood composer-turned-producer Frank Shepard. Frank networks, his ingénue mistress simpers, his spurned wife smoulders and the whole thing is brought crashing down by his drunk friend Mary, who lets rip with a tirade against the host. Everyone is shocked, except Frank: she has touched a nerve. And so the show begins to peel back the years, through the moments at which Frank, by degrees, parted company with his ideals, his friends and his happiness.
The show’s other problem is that Frank comes over as an arrogant, egocentric individual. But Mark Umbers’ perceptive, charismatic performance suggests a deep insecurity that explains his inconstancy. As his old friends Damian Humbley makes a lovable, funny Charley – nimbly excellent in the virtuoso number in which he explodes their friendship live on television – and Jenna Russell is superb as Mary, hopelessly and incurably in love with Frank. The nine-piece band’s delicate delivery of the music reveals its variety and delicacy. Sassy, sweet and sad.