Brash, in your-face musical comedy has been the order of the day lately, and with good reason; given recent events that have changed our perspective on the world, we've needed to laugh. But if you've been waiting for a musical comedy that had as much heart as it does hilarity, with Summer of '42, the charming, touching new musical at the Variety Arts Theatre, you need wait no longer.
Book writer Hunter Foster, composer David Kirshenbaum, and director Gabriel Barre have done a wonderful job in adapting Herman Raucher's novel and screenplay for the stage, imbuing it with affecting warmth and sentimentality. From the simple but modern design of James Youmans's set, which evokes miles of sandy beach with a mostly carpeted stage, to the fresh, period-appropriate costumes of Pamela Scofield and Tim Hunter's lights, the physical production itself feels as new as a summer morning. But Summer of '42 seems less like it belongs to them, and more like it is a product of that which it celebrates, youth. And no one onstage better manifests than that Ryan Driscoll.
A recent high school graduate himself according to his Playbill biography, Driscoll aptly handles a super-sized starmaking role with grace and self-assuredness. As Hermie, the story's central figure, he displays a lovable awkwardness in his earlier moments to the depths of an adult's acceptance near the end of show. When, at the end of the show, the events of the summer are but a memory to Hermie, Driscoll's portrayal has made them every bit as vital; his is a captivating and memorable performance.
Kate Jennings Grant plays Dorothy, the older woman who, while her husband is off at war, teaches Hermie much about life and love. Grant has a strong maternal and sexual flair, and real chemistry with Driscoll; their scenes together have real poignancy and warmth. When the two of them are alone on the beach at the end of the first act and singing the emotional "Someone to Dance With Me," it's a powerful, meaningful moment.
This is due, in no small part, to the work Kirshenbaum and Foster have done in their adaptation. They have created a fully integrated work, where dialogue and songs interweave seamlessly, complementing each other with great precision. While both are very good, Kirshenbaum's score is a little better, very attractive and with a sound unlike other recent musicals.
Kirshenbaum has written particularly well for the demands of the characters and the strength of the cast; Hermie and his friends (Brett Tabisel and Jason Marcus, both giving strong comic performances as Oscy and Benjie) are musicalized with close harmony, while their young romantic interests (Celia Keenan-Bolger, Megan Valerie Walker, and Erin Webley) take it a step further, becoming a singing trio not unlike the Andrews Sisters, with the requisite moves and panache. Greg Stone and Bill Kux, as Dorothy's husband and the local drug store owner have less onstage time, but are hardly short-shrifted as characters musically or dramatically.
Barre's direction and choreography are the icing on the cake, pointing up the best moments and making them better still. His droll comic take on Hermie's adventurous trip to a drugstore in the second act, or an uncomfortable date at the movies in the first, are laugh-out-loud funny, while he proves just as capable later of tugging at the heart strings and getting to the heart of what growing up really means.
Watching the events of Hermie, Oscy, and Benjie's fateful summer unfold makes it difficult to not cast a similar gaze inward. Hermie's awkwardness and confusion, rife at the show's beginning, belonged to all of us once; his moments at the end of the show, exemplified primarily by a simple embrace and dance prove to him that he is becoming an adult, much the way events in our own lives may have as well.
But these moments of realization come later. When the adult Hermie, at the evening's beginning, stands downstage looking up at the beach where his life changed, listening to each of the characters tell him it was "a summer you'll always remember," at that point, you don't quite understand. When the final, beautiful moments of the show arrive, you will, but until then, this is definitely a Summer you'll never want to end.
Photo - Kate Jennings Grant as Dorothy and Ryan Driscoll as Hermie. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer of '42