Two men and a woman sit onstage. The man in the rear is seated sideways on a chair. The woman is leaning against the chair, and the other man is curled up on the floor with his head in her lap.
Christopher Johnson (rear), Brittney Brown, and Dustin Rothbart in Blank Theatre's Merrily We Roll Along Credit: Eli Van Sickel/Cap Images

UPDATE JULY 19: Due to a fire next door to the Reginald Vaughn Theater, Blank Theatre will be presenting their closing weekend performances of Merrily We Roll Along in concert readings at City Lit Theater Company, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. Performances are Fri-Sat 7:30 PM and Sun 3 PM. Contact for information on exchanges or refunds.

“It’s our time, breathe it in: / Worlds to change and worlds to win. / Our turn coming through, / Me and you, pal, / Me and you!” So proclaims “Our Time,” the soaring choral finale of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, now playing in an excellent new production by the Blank Theatre Company. The anthem dramatizes the meeting of three young creatives— composer Franklin Shepard, lyricist Charley Kringas, and aspiring novelist Mary Flynn—who seem destined to forge a lifelong friendship. The date is October 4, 1957—the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, and with it the Cold War space race. Frank and Charley, roommates and songwriting partners, and their neighbor Mary are on the rooftop of their New York City apartment building to view the satellite as it passes overhead like a shooting star. For these idealistic artists in their early 20s, the historic moment represents a future of endless possibilities: “Our dream coming true, / Me and you, pal, / Me and you!”

Merrily We Roll Along
Through 7/23: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Reginald Vaughn Theater, 1106 W. Thorndale,, $35 (student and industry $20)

The optimism expressed in “Our Time” rivals “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the opening number of Oklahoma!, the landmark show that Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote as his first collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers. But “Our Time” isn’t the first song you hear in Merrily; it’s the last. And its placement at the end of the show gives the sweet tune a poignant subtext. By the time the audience hears this closing chorale, we are well aware that the hopefulness it expresses will erode into bitter disillusion.

That’s because Merrily We Roll Along, a story of promises unkept and potential unfulfilled, unfolds its narrative in reverse chronological order. The story spans 25 years in the rise and fall of its principal characters’ triangular relationship, beginning where it ends and ending where it begins. The two-act show’s first scene, set at a Hollywood party in 1981, introduces the audience to Frank (Christopher Johnson), now a middle-aged movie producer who has become estranged from Charley (Dustin Rothbart) and Mary (Brittney Brown) and trapped in a hostile marriage to washed-up Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie (Brandy Miller), Frank’s second wife and onetime star of his musical hits.

The script, by George Furth, then jumps backward in time. We see Frank’s friendship with Charley and Mary deteriorate as Frank succumbs to commercial pressures—and financial temptations—to use his gifts to pander to the public, rather than to enlighten and elevate them, as Charley and Mary want. We also observe Frank’s dealings with Gussie, who is instrumental in alienating Frank from Charley, Mary, and Frank’s first wife, singer Beth Spencer (Justine Cameron).

The time-reversal device employed by Furth and Sondheim is borrowed from a 1934 play, also called Merrily We Roll Along, from which the musical was freely adapted. The original play was a rare flop by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the team who would go on to deliver the 1930s hits You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. (In their play, the Mary character, a sharp-tongued drunk, was clearly modeled on Kaufman and Hart’s friend, critic and short story writer Dorothy Parker.) The musical Merrily was also a flop in its original Broadway production under the direction of Harold Prince—a huge disappointment coming after Prince and Sondheim’s 1979 hit Sweeney Todd. The failure of Merrily brought an end to the decade-long collaboration between Sondheim and Prince that began with their landmark 1970 Company, which also had a script by Furth.

But over the years, Merrily has built up a solid reputation through regional productions, aided by revisions from Furth and Sondheim and further buoyed by Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, a 2016 documentary film about the making of Merrily directed by Lonny Price, who played Charley in the original production. An acclaimed off-Broadway revival last year, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez, will transfer to Broadway this fall, and ads are popping up on social media now, using Radcliffe’s familiar face to lure potential ticket buyers.

But Merrily isn’t a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece, as director Danny Kapinos’s minimalist Blank Theatre staging amply demonstrates. There is virtually no set, just a bare square playing area with the audience seated around three sides. There are also chairs along the back wall, but they are for the 14 cast members to sit in or stand on as they wait for their cues. The entire non-Equity cast—all fine singers—comprise a Greek chorus who guide the audience through the story’s sequential flashbacks, commenting on the action and themes and stepping forward to portray characters as needed.

By eschewing any attempt at quasi-realistic staging—and leaving it up to the superb lighting design by Benjamin Carne to illuminate the show’s emotional shifts—director Kapinos focuses attention on the text, both spoken and sung. Sondheim’s score—alternately pungent and lyrical, and always painstakingly crafted—includes two of his finest ballads, the operatic “Not a Day Goes By” and the lilting, Bacharach-esque “Good Thing Going.” Under Aaron Kaplan’s musical direction, the solo and choral vocals are articulate, beautifully blended, and blessedly unamplified. Every word is crystal clear, crisply accompanied by an offstage six-piece band led by keyboardist Sachio Nang.

Earlier I alluded to Oklahoma!, but this production recalls another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the 1947 Allegro. Seldom revived now, Allegro—identified by some historians as the first “concept musical”—was a profound and formative influence on Sondheim, who, as a teenager, worked on the original production as personal assistant to librettist Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim’s tutor and surrogate father. Allegro, like Merrily, is a morality play about an everyman who gains the world but loses his moral compass. Allegro employs a Greek chorus to comment on the story’s events and themes—as does Merrily, though Blank’s production is the first Merrily I’ve seen to elevate the chorus’s role so prominently in the storytelling.

I’ve seen several versions of Merrily over many years (all of them in Chicago), and this is by far the most effective. Performed in Invictus’s flexible, intimate Reginald Vaughn Theater space in Edgewater, this is storefront Sondheim at its best.