Maryland Theatre Guide Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Tragically, it often does take a death to rehabilitate the image of a much-maligned piece of theatre. In the wake of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, his most autobiographical show has received a film adaptation from Richard Linklater, an acclaimed Broadway revival, and, finally, a revival here in D.C. Though famous for its hostile structure and harsh edges, in the cozy walls of the Keegan, Merrily We Roll Along finds the footing it so richly deserves—a footing unsurprisingly steeped in memory and longing.

Much of this attitude is due to Ryan Burke’s performance as Frank, whose naturally affable demeanor reflects a genius who simply doesn’t know what he’s getting into. Indeed, Frank is driven less by titanic ambition and more by a boyish need to play and create, which helps shed the veil of darkness the beginning holds over the end. So much of that more hopeful attitude is down to the immaculate chemistry of the core trio. Harrison Smith’s Charley Kringas maintains a sharpness inherent to the text but, even in his most virulently furious, maintains a quirky affability that almost instinctively brings a smile to your face. Meanwhile, Sarah Chapin’s Mary, a true highlight of this production, perfectly balances Mary’s obstinate nature with a warmth and insecurity that creates instant audience sympathy in a role that can be very standoffish. Even Sumié Yotsukura’s Gussie Carnegie maintains a perfect anti-chemistry with the trio, fitting for the source of their inevitable downfall.

It would be a shame not to highlight the soaring quality of the vocal performances. While this musical is far from Sondheim’s most complex work, the cast handles it with absolute grace. Of particular highlight is the Act 2 duet, “Not a Day Goes By,” between Mary and Frank’s first wife, Beth (Brigid Wallace Harper). Chapin and Harper’s vocal chemistry is immaculate, and their interplay communicates more devotion and longing in two minutes than most scripts can in two hours. Music Director Nathan Beary Bluestein’s focus on injecting nostalgic warmth and preserving character into the orchestrations should be commended.

Even the design, which initially appears stark and cold, grows into a surprising warmth. Matthew J. Keenan and Cindy Landrum Jacob’s three-story structure, entirely covered in old newspaper clippings, feels almost monolithic at first sight but as the play’s scope decreases, the space we pay attention to does as well. Cleverly designed overhangs and corners let each small scene feel like you’re peering into someone’s memory when it’s most needed. Lighting from Dominic Desalvio assists both in creating that scope and in injecting that warmth as the harsh tones of early scenes transition to a more natural color palette as time goes on. Everything, from the costuming by Elizabeth Morton to projections by Jeremy Bennett, helps build a sense of time and place, growing ever more nostalgic as we head deeper into the past.

Co-directors Christina Coakley and Jennifer Hopkins, alongside dramaturg Debra Crerie, have tapped into something that both distinguishes this production and breathes new interest into it. In asking “How did you ever get to be here?” this production of Merrily We Roll Along provides a clear answer. “Who Knows? But the path sure was Rosy.”