Review: Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at Keegan Theatre

The music of Stephen Sondheim is well sung by the company of Merrily We Roll Along, now playing at the Keegan Theatre through March 3.

By: Feb. 06, 2024
Review: Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at Keegan Theatre

The music of Stephen Sondheim is well sung by the company of Merrily We Roll Along, now playing at the Keegan Theatre through March 3.

Ryan Burke, Harrison Smith, and Sarah Chapin as Frank, Charley, and Mary form the core of the "old friends" about whom the plot furls. Burke and Smith in particular have the quality that song pluggers require because their characters are song WRITERS and thus must perennially audition for producers despite the fact that they're not professional singers. Burke and Smith, both impeccably musical, must perform as if they're not performers, and they nail that. Brigid Wallace Harper gets to sing the immortal "Not a Day Goes By," and she dazzlingly nails that. And Sumié Yotsukura does a great job singing "Growing Up," a song that Sondheim added as he began to revise the show a few years after its initial 16-performance run on Broadway in 1981. Joe Josephson and an excellent ensemble masterfully sing Sondheim's innovative musical score. It is the volume to which Nathan Beary Blustein's fine, 10-piece orchestra is amplified by Gordon Nimmo-Smith's "sound design" which prevents the audience from hearing Sondheim's lyrics.

Obsession with or fashion for "loud" is one thing; drowning out Sondheim's lyrics is musical theatre heresy. What's hard is simple: sound mix can be altered any old week, easy.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, this is a terrific production. Scenic Designer Matthew J. Keenan and Projections Designer Jeremy Bennett share cahoots to transform Keegan's space with platforms and images that enhance the show. Keenan has built four levels, giving Co-Directors Christina A. Coakley and Jennifer J. Hopkins ample space for the 16 actors--a brilliant solution which makes Keegan's small house seem roomy. Keenan wallpapers the platforms with newspapers that reference the period from the 1970s to the 1950s during which Charley, Mary, and Frank become very close friends and then must struggle to stay that way as life and time and bad choices do what they do. The topmost row of squares and rectangles serve as silhouetted Manhattan buildings, lit from within against the night sky, and also as screens for Bennett's fabulous and detailed collection of photos--most real, such as Fidel Castro, Sputnik I, New York City brownstones, Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine, the Nixon-Kennedy campaign, and others manufactured for the world of the characters, including programs and headlines for the one Broadway hit that Charley and Frank created together.

Dominic DeSalvio's versatile lighting can paint the evening sky, target a few characters having a private moment, and quickly shift to a bright ensemble number on all four levels. The fire escape gobo will make displaced New Yorkers kvell; nothing casts a shadow on the sidewalk like a New York City fire escape. Elizabeth Morton's costumes survey the 70s-50s with an accurate eye. Standouts include the terrible multi-colored dress shirts that men began to wear in the 1970s, the sleek, A-line mini-dresses that women wore in the 1960s, and the berets that were "in" in the Village in the 50s and 60s. Hopkins, also the choreographer, brings back the frug and the pony; but more importantly, she makes everyone look like a great dancer.

The acting and singing in this Merrily We Roll Along deserve to be be heard; and this town is full of people who know Sondheim's work and words. People make mistakes/someone is on your side/Keegan, make it so.

(duration: c. 2.5 hours)

(Photo of Harrison Smith, Ryan Burke, Sarah Chapin, and the cast of Merrily We Roll Along by Cameron Whitman)




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