When I saw that Washington’s 120-seat Keegan Theatre planned to produce [Merrily We Roll Along] this month, I was surprised. They’re allowed to do that? The timing seemed … unfortunate. But is it?
Keegan had long wanted to perform its first Sondheim show and finally secured the rights to Merrily. When the starry off-Broadway production announced a move to Broadway, Keegan’s leaders considered postponing their version but didn’t want to risk losing their chance. So they ran with it, hoping it would “provide an interesting counterpoint to the New York version, and that those who have seen it there will be interested to see Keegan’s take on this show as well,” artistic director Susan Marie Rhea writes in an email.
The production rises to the task, as we’re drawn into the characters’ journeys despite their flaws. Ryan Burke’s Frank, the talented composer who becomes a sceney Hollywood producer, seems to genuinely regret getting dragged into his new, deeply uncomfortable life. Harrison Smith’s Charley, Frank’s songwriting partner, is affable amid his resentment. Sarah Chapin is both amusing and cutting as Mary, the author in unrequited love with Frank (a trait that has always felt underwritten).
The singing is remarkable, including that of Brigid Wallace Harper as Frank’s first wife, Beth, and it comes across vividly in Keegan’s intimate space. Duane Richards II lands his quips as Joe Josephson, the producer played by Jason Alexander in the original production.
The set is plastered entirely with newspapers, helping the colorful costumes pop and highlighting how Frank’s descent parallels America’s own declining mood: The show starts a couple years after Nixon’s resignation and then gradually traces the characters back to just before the Camelot era of JFK, ending on the day they spot Sputnik from their rooftop. At one point we see a headline announcing Robert Kennedy’s death in 1968; later, in 1960, a song that spoofs the Kennedys proclaims they’ll all be president one day.
Broadway’s Merrily shows that it deserves to be in that upper tier of musicals, the ones you have to see. The production here in Washington shows that word of its greatness can be spread by the Keegans of the world, too.