Metro Weekly

A Savory and Stylish ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (Review)

Keegan's "Merrily We Roll Along" hums and dances fabulously, despite a few missteps and awkward touches.

Merrily We Roll Along -- Photo: Cameron Whitman
Merrily We Roll Along — Photo: Cameron Whitman

Even before the beginning of the end — which is at the beginning in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s backwards-unfolding Merrily We Roll Along — blaring fanfares of the overture beg a question: where in the Keegan have they stashed the band?

For the company’s first foray into Sondheim, co-directors Christina A. Coakley and Jennifer J. Hopkins might have tucked conductor-keyboardist Nathan Beary Blustein and his 9-piece orchestra underneath or behind Matthew J. Keenan’s sturdy, multi-level set, a layer cake in newsprint. Every surface of scenery is wrapped in newspaper pages marking events in the 20-year span covered in the show.

Those pages of famous faces and arresting headlines must also serve as excellent soundproofing, since the band’s sound doesn’t bleed, but is channeled robustly through the speaker system. It’s from there that the brass and woodwinds come blasting (at least at seat C-12), occasionally overpowering the performer onstage.

The initial wait for a pianissimo starts to seem conspicuous until we’re served a sip of subtlety by Sarah Chapin, as party-pooping Mary Flynn. A boozer deep in her cups, Mary takes center stage at the opening Bel Air soirée where nearly all assembled sing the praises of their host, “That Frank,” Hollywood producer Frank Shepard.

Rendered mellifluously by Ryan Burke as a savvy player often opting to downplay his drive, Frank might be the man Mary loves truly, but he’s married to haughty stage and screen star Gussie (Sumié Yotsukura).

Beyond simply suggesting lovesick, Chapin’s three-dimensional take conveys volumes of story in Mary from the moment we meet her — not that Furth’s book, or Sondheim’s music and lyrics follow through much on what she really wants, unless it pertains to Frank.

Still, Chapin confirms her fluency with Sondheim’s distinctive flow in “Old Friends/Like It Was,” sung with Harrison Smith as Charley Kringas, third in the show’s trio of pals whose rocky road from best of friends to bitter enemies feels especially touching traced backwards. However, that bittersweet taste of resentment also frequently comes delivered with laughs.

Smith hits just such a humming high point with Charley’s jittery, seethingly angry “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Then comes the gut-punch of the following scene, set years prior, showing Charley full of joy, acting out of love for Frank, poignantly unaware of where their choices will someday lead them and their friendship.

The audience is acutely aware of just how fragile their bonds may prove to be, so is not always led merrily to the dawn before the darkness. Yet, the lead trio of Chapin, Smith, and Burke maintain, regardless of the status of their characters’ friendships, a winning compatibility onstage, supported by a game, if uneven, ensemble.

Yotsukura brings a wealth of stage presence, but overacts Gussie’s acid imperiousness. As Gussie’s grasping ex-husband Joe, Duane Richards II could play it with the implications of the kind of hustler this Joe would have to be to succeed on Broadway in 1964, or he could play the part as a generic impresario-type, which is more where this Joe lands.

It’s one directorial choice — along with staging that too often places scenes on the set’s upper level, at an awkward distance from the audience — that detracts from an otherwise engaging, movingly sincere production.

Costumed brilliantly by Elizabeth Morton, lifted joyfully by Hopkins’ jaunty choreography, Keegan’s Merrily We Roll Along offers a savory, stylish serving of Sondheim, even if we sometimes might wish for a sound mix that better reined in the band.

Merrily We Roll Along (★★★☆☆) runs through March 10, at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $60, with discount options available. Visit

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