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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Merrily We Roll Along
Blank Theatre Company
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Christine's recent reviews of The Who's Tommy and Another Marriage

Christopher Johnson, Brittney Brown,
and Dustin Rothbart

Photo by Eli Van Sickel/VanCap Images
To open their 2023 season, Blank Theatre Company sets for themselves a task that is ambitious in and of itself: staging Merrily We Roll Along (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart). More ambitious still is to stage this challenging show with its large cast in the highly intimate space of the Reginald Vaughn Theatre. To the credit of the cast, director Danny Kapinos and music director Aaron Kaplan, the production pulls this off, almost without exception.

With little to no room for a set, Adrian Luka Tirado has arranged a series of window frames of varying sizes on the upstage wall. This suggests the cheek-by-jowl living spaces of New York, but also hints at the themes of voyeurism, surveillance, and opportunism that run through the show. The only other "set" pieces, half a dozen mismatched kitchen chairs, mirror these themes, as ensemble members often occupy them, watching scenes involving the main characters intently, sometimes lying in wait before they burst on the scene.

This, in turn, is echoed in the blocking, where Kapinos not infrequently has characters who are talking to another direct their lines to some section of the audience, rather than trying to force either proscenium or semi-in-the-round interactions. Well-supported by Benjamin Carne's lighting design, the result is an interesting depiction of the shallow interactions Frank, Charley, and Mary encounter as they pursue their careers. Thus, the minimalist-by-necessity approach becomes a dramatic opportunity well seized.

Cindy Moon's costumes are another strength of the production. Outfitting a large number of actors for a show that springs backward in time over a period of twenty years is no mean feat. But Moon has a well-developed visual language that accomplishes this, and characterization to boot, seemingly via a combination of out-of-closet and thrift store fashion.

For example, in the opening scenes, depicting the latest point in the show's timeline, Frank's green skinny tie and loud trousers in a similar shade are an effective nod to selling out and questionable taste. As the story reverses, though, he wears the same tie, but with grey pants that match his sport coat. Earlier still, the soft lilacs and greens of his wider, more traditional tie link him to the color palette of the pretty though slightly frumpy dress that Beth wears to Joe Josephson's party.

Although the space at the Vaughn Theatre is very workable, one of the more serious challenges to mounting a musical is the fact that there is truly nowhere to put the orchestra other than the green room, which is separated from the performance space by a wall. Pulling off Sondheim under circumstances where the actors cannot see the musicians or the conductor (Sachio Nang) is quite the high-wire act, but this group manages it.

Of the main cast, Brittney Brown's performance as Mary is the strongest, vocally and dramatically. From the opening, she has the mandatory comedic beats well in hand, and she wrangles Frank and Charley without ever being reduced to the harried gal pal. She even manages to breathe some life into the fairly thin plot line of her unrequited love for Frank, particularly in the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By."

Christopher Johnson and Dustin Rothbart, as Frank and Charley, respectively, are also engaging and vocally strong. Johnson has somewhat more material to work with to convey Frank's transformation, and he acquits himself well in doing so. Charley is not as well fleshed out in the book, but Rothbart productively plays with what is and is not there to create something three-dimensional.

As Gussie, Brandy Miller, too, is up to the task of inhabiting a character that is somewhat neglected in the raw material. In "Growing Up," her steady command of the vocal part means that she has focus to devote to injecting some genuine pathos into a role that can too easily devolve into a kind of plot device bitch.

As Beth, Justine Cameron's voice and demeanor serve as an effective foil to Miller, rather than an overly simplistic polar opposite. Along with Johnson and Rothbart, she flashes some serious comedic chops in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack."

As Joe, Gussie's cast-off producer husband, Aaron Mann plays the comedy well, but also offers grounded moments when he shares with Mary and Charley his pain and foolish hope that he can wait out Gussie's affair with Frank.

Merrily We Roll Along runs through July 23, 203 at Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit