Washington City Paper Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

The Local Production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG Knows How to Move Forward

For years, nothing could interfere with the “old friends” of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along. As would-be Broadway creators Frank (Ryan Burke), his longtime collaborator Charley (Harrison Smith), and their confidante Mary (Sarah Chapin) age over 20 years, their dreams of professionally writing and composing for the Great White Way become reality. The trouble is Frank’s lust for success begins to drive a wedge between the trio. But because all great lessons must only be learned in retrospect, this musical begins at the end of Frank’s career.

Operating like a nostalgia-fueled daydream, the musical is nevertheless fundamentally charming, and more and more theater-makers seem to be taking up the puzzle Sondheim himself couldn’t solve. … Luckily for local audiences, Sondheim’s underappreciated classic has found a temporary home at the Keegan Theatre, whose genuine and terrifically sung production of Merrily We Roll Along runs through March 10. As the lights rise on the prologue, the ensemble gaze straight at the audience and repeatedly warn: “never look back.” This advice is promptly ignored when the now 40-year-old Frank descends the platforms of set designer Matthew J. Keenan’s multitiered proscenium to discover a photo album presumably filled with snapshots of his two best friends and the memories they shared. For co-directors Christina A. Coakley and Jennifer J. Hopkins, this framing device is an effective way to ease audiences into Sondheim’s complicated musical, which henceforth becomes a series of Frank’s memories that roll out in reverse.

With just a handful of set pieces and a platform stage immersed in newspaper clippings, the 10-person ensemble bleeds into the end of each scene, singing the recurrent theme “Merrily We Roll Along.” Elizabeth Morton’s retro-inspired costumes dazzle as cast members intermittently appear in feathers, flares, and miniskirts. Jeremy Bennett’s projections offer additional texture to Keenan and Cindy Landrum Jacobs newspaper-mache set-design, as images of the New York skyline ferry audiences across decades to real and imagined locations.

Despite the Keegan Theatre’s unique scenic concept, energetic ensemble, and memorable performances from supporting characters such as Brigid Wallace Harper as Beth, Sumié Yotsukura as Gussie, and Duane Richards II as Joe, the success of this production primarily rests on the shoulders of its three exceptional leads.

Characters that require nuance, compassion, and humility—not to mention a masterful interpretation of some of Sondheim’s most difficult songs—Charley, Frank, and Mary each demand serious musical theater chops. On that front, Keegan delivers. … Burke’s performance as Frank is humble but with added gravitas where the situation calls for it. He also approaches Frank’s inevitable downfall with an abundance of intuition. Chapin, who wholly encapsulates Mary with a touch of smirk and glowing charisma, gives a stunning performance of the underrated gem “Old Friends—Like It Was.” And Smith could likely sing the phone book and it would sound terrific—and with Charley’s intricate patter song “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.,” he comes fairly close to doing exactly that. Needless to say, Smith nails it.

The play revels in moments fixated on their friendship. Chemistry runs in all directions with this trio and the cast does excellent work to represent various age ranges and perspectives. Proving that three heads are better than one, these outstanding actors gracefully share the spotlight and, frankly, listen and respond to one another in such a way that makes each individual performance stronger.

Keegan Theatre’s strong rendition of a difficult play indicates that the Sondheim hype is here to stay. This brilliantly acted homegrown production celebrates friendship, artistry, and authenticity from ending to beginning.