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.
…finds the footing it so richly deserves…steeped in memory and longing…tapped into something that both distinguishes this production and breathes new interest into it.
“Merrily We Roll Along” is, famously, a show played in reverse. It starts in 1976, in the swanky digs of composer/producer Franklin Shepard (Ryan Burke) as he hits his professional height and personal low. Though his latest film is a massive hit, his greatest friends and family have all abandoned him, leaving him hollow. We follow him backward through the years, watching his close-as-kin relationship with fellow artists, Mary Flynn (Sarah Chapin) and Charley Kringas (Harrison Smith), from point of fracture to point of forming, with a few cute notes of history along the way. Those reminders of history align nicely with the show’s core mood, which falls less in line with the pure cynicism of the original but instead with a grateful nostalgia.
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.
If there is anything Keegan gets right with this difficult book, it is understanding that it is a memory play. Frank is looking back on his life and sees his recent failings as they are, but cannot help but adore his hopeful past. The play’s ambiguous conclusion is deeply tinged with the seductive power of nostalgia and makes you question how honest Frank’s memories are. How much of his stumbling into misfortune is truly his fault? 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.”
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Audience advisory: Age 13+. Contains discussions of mature themes, occasional strong language, and depiction of alcohol abuse.
“Merrily We Roll Along” runs through March 3, 2024 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. FOr more information and to purchase tickets, email: email@example.com, call (202) 265-3767, or go online.