It is rare that an informed and discerning theatergoer can come away from a brand new musical completely satisfied, but in the case of Summer of '42, currently playing at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, OH, there is very little with which to find fault. Dayton audiences should consider themselves lucky to receive an opportunity to see this show (instead of the show it replaced, the delayed national tour of The Sound of Music with Barry Williams). Summer of '42 is a thoroughly delightful, well-constructed, and wonderfully executed musical comedy.
Based on the 1971 film of the same name, Summer of '42 focuses on the coming-of-age of three teenage boys staying on a Maine island for the summer during World War II. The boys set out to learn and experience all they can about love and sex, with the object of the boys' curiosity being three teenage girls. The young ladies, in addition to being the embodiment of temptation and frustration for the boys, serve effectively as a Greek chorus, often commenting on the times and plot developments throughout the evening. At the center of the story is young Hermie, who, in addition to being distracted by one of the younger girls, has also been befriended by a beautiful young war bride named Dorothy. The relationship of the teenager and this gorgeous married woman is the source of a great deal of humor, but it is also an opportunity to tug at one's heartstrings.
Director Gabriel Barre, composer and lyricist David Kirshenbaum, and book writer Hunter Foster have constructed an entertaining feast for one's eyes, ears, and heart. The score is an effective mix of styles - 1940s big band swing and contemporary musical theater - featuring some strong melodies and one of the better uses of sung dialogue (with hilarious results) in quite some time. The book is strong, taking the best parts of the film and adding in other twists and turns that always satisfy. The dialogue is very witty, natural, and funny. The audience is given ample reason to laugh throughout the evening. Mr. Barre again proves to be an effective and creative storyteller. His efforts earlier this year in the Off-Broadway production of The Wild Party were highly praised and his work here is likewise deserving. Mr. Barre will be directing the upcoming national tour of Cinderella starring Eartha Kitt and Deborah Gibson and it will be interesting to see if he can capture such magic three times in a single year. A beautiful set design and good lighting add to the effectiveness of the piece as well.
One of the top assets of this production is its cast. The nine-character ensemble is near perfect. As the war bride, Tony nominee Idina Menzel (Rent, The Wild Party) provides a subtle and moving portrayal of this lonely, yet hopeful young woman. Ms. Menzel is known for her powerhouse voice, but the songs here do not allow her to use her instrument to its full extent. However, she does very well with the material, including the show's two big ballads, and demonstrates that she is an accomplished actress, in addition to being a strong singer. Hermie's two young friends provide much of the comic relief of the evening and are convincingly played by Brett Tabisel (Tony nominee for Big) and Jason Marcus. The trio of teenage girls is also very funny as portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Megan Walker, and Jeanne Goodman. Bill Kux and Matt Farnsworth are effective as well in smaller roles. The evening, however, belongs to Ryan Driscoll as Hermie. This young actor perfectly captures the innocence, exuberance, and awkwardness of youthful adolescence. His attractive tenor, versatile and endearing delivery of lines, and natural comic timing should be the envy of many adult performers. Summer of '42 focuses on Hermie's feelings about growing up and his attempt to realize his dreams through Dorothy, and the show is in good hands with young Mr. Driscoll.
Dayton is the second stop for this musical, and the 1,200 seat Victoria
Theatre is the perfect fit for the show. Summer of '42 comes
directly from The Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where it was
carefully developed. While there are no concrete plans for the show
following the Dayton run, there is hope for a production in New York in the
future. It is unfortunate that Mr. Driscoll and some of the others
may have out-grown their characters by then. This musical is very deserving
of a continued life with the current cast. It is a true crowd-pleaser, and
professionally executed in every way. If you have the chance to see this
wonderful piece of musical theater, get to Dayton before October 22.
-- Scott Cain