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Take Me Along

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Justin Packard, Don Stephenson, Dewey Cadell, and Gordon Stanley
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Jackie Gleason may be gone, but his spirit haunts on. Not just in reruns of The Honeymooners, though his iconic portrayal of Ralph Kramden will never die, but also where you'd never expect to find it. One such place is the Irish Repertory Theatre's precious but lackluster new production of the 1959 musical Take Me Along.

Gleason starred in the original production, and won a Tony for his performance of hard-drinking, promise-breaking romantic gadabout Sid Davis. A spin of its cast recording reveals Gleason in top form, applying his gravel-popping voice and latter-day vaudevillian wares to hilarious effect in the Bob Merrill songs that peppered this musicalization of Eugene O'Neill's family comedy Ah, Wilderness. (Joseph Stein and Robert Russell adapted the book.)

While many musicals outlive their stars by decades, some simply require the punchy, over-the-top gusto that only one-of-a-kind talents can provide. While Take Me Along is not bereft of charms, it is in desperate need of zest to spice up its tendency toward bland sentimentality. The show doesn't get it in Charlotte Moore's under-equipped production, which breaks the fine director's recent admirable record of successful vest-pocket reductions of Broadway-sized musicals.

Those previous shows, Finian's Rainbow and Meet Me in St. Louis, were tighter ensemble pieces that could be ratcheted back with limited incident. But Take Me Along depends on the pageantry of its setting in Centerville, Connecticut, on Independence Day (the year is usually 1906; in this production, it's 1920), and the blazes of local flair that should start the nostalgia machines whirring from the very first scene. Unfortunately, the opener, a jaunty parade, is far from ideal for an 11-person cast; nor is the buoyant title song, which grows from a soft-shoe duet into a full-town celebration. The picture-postcard cheer of James Morgan's candy-colored backdrops and Linda Fisher's costumes help somewhat, but even so, this is a show that feels too big for the Irish Rep - and its cast.

Don Stephenson is a fine comic actor when mated with the right role; his Leo Bloom in The Producers captured that role's meeker-than-life leanings better than its originator, Matthew Broderick. His strengths, however, are not those of a mid-century song-and-dance sponge determined to soak up everything. Heavy of voice, heavy of mood, and dark of tone, Stephenson is the opposite of the nimble lug the role requires.

Without a manner that begs forgiveness with every soulful shrug, Sid is less endearing than cruel when engaging in his typical loutish behavior toward his on-again-off-again fiancée Lily (Beth Glover). The potentially playful "I Get Embarrassed," in which he lobs distasteful imagery at her delicate sensibility, is sedate rather than seductive as he sings it. And you don't believe that he believes a word of "Little Green Snake," about the dangers of over-imbibing.

Because you don't sense in Stephenson the possibility of redemption, their love story doesn't take flight as fleetly as it should. It doesn't help that Glover's Lily, too, looks to have given up the fight: She seems to have taken her "old maid" characterization to outrageous extremes, looking like the dye-haired servant of the Miller family and not its forever-hopeful heart.

Teddy Eck, William Parry, and Donna Bullock
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This shifts the focus to the rest of the Millers, who are enacting their renditions of the mating game at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Nat (William Parry) and Essie (Donna Bullock) are coping with growing old, while their 16-year-old son Richard (Teddy Eck) is discovering women and angering their fathers - specifically, Muriel and Dave McComber (Emily Skeggs and Gordon Stanley) - with his penchant for inappropriate literature. (Oscar Wilde's Salome is the raciest of his cherished books.)

These performers are all better matches for their roles, with Parry a lovable patriarch, Bullock radiant as the reluctantly aging Essie, and Stanley luxuriously lively. But the roles themselves no longer have the heft needed to support the evening - Stein and Russell stripped down Ah, Wilderness for their star Sid, and without one, everyone else seems at best a placeholder. The carefully weighted supporting couples common to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, such as Ado Annie Will in Oklahoma! or Carrie and Mr. Snow in Carousel, are hardly in evidence here.

What is certain is that Merrill's score, even as played here by a three-piece band under Mark Hartman's musical direction, is a delight. In ballads ("We're Home" and "Promise Me a Rose," both for Lily), contemplations (Nat's "Staying Young"), and saucy specialties (like "If Jesus Doesn't Love Ya," for call girl Belle, played by Anastasia Barzee), it tunefully tracks the details and detours of love at all ages. But you're seldom convinced that there's anything happening really worth singing about.

Take Me Along
Through April 13
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
TICKETS can be purchased by calling The Irish Repertory Theatre Box Office at 212.727.2737
Performances: Wed 3:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 3:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm

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