Summer of '42

Variety Arts Theatre, NYC - January 2002

Reviewed by John Kenrick

The next time you wonder why "they don't write musicals like they used to," keep in mind that the deck is stacked against such shows.

Some people think of the so-called "golden age" of musicals (1943-1966) as a time when massive hits appeared every season. Well, it was also a time when a simple show with genuine sentiment and fresh talent could come to New York, run a while, record a cast album, perhaps even win a few awards. Those who went to the theater did so frequently, happy to see more than just the top hits. Shows like Take Me Along, 110 in the Shade and Carnival touched and entertained with heartfelt stories about characters who must leaving childish ways behind. In fact, one such show managed to stick around for four decades – or have we already forgotten The Fantasticks?

Summer of '42 is such a show, offering warmth, humor and some extraordinary new talent. But it had the misfortune to come along at a time when the commercial theater has no place for it. Although more people than ever are going to the theater, most of them are only interested in seeing the hottest blockbusters. Shows offering smaller pleasures no longer need apply. This sort of thinking spelled doom for several promising musicals in recent years, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Now, after barely a month's run, Summer of '42 will fade into oblivion. No run, no awards, no recording to preserve the score. This is not just a pity – its a damn tragedy. We can't afford to waste something this good.

Back in 1971, TV scriptwriter Herman Raucher turned his adolescent wartime memories into a nostalgic "coming of age" film starring Jennifer O'Neal.. The story follows Hermie, Oscy and Benji, a trio of 15 year olds spending the summer of 1942 on an island off New England. They desperately struggle to lose their innocence, and Hermie's attempts are complicated by his wild crush on the woman next door – a gorgeous newlywed whose husband goes off to war. Hermie confronts adulthood, and his life changes forever.

You know how critics are always complaining that there are too few new voices in the musical theater? Well, here are two I want to hear a lot more from. Composer David Kirshenbaum's score blends 1940's swing with a more contemporary theatrical tone. In a neat touch, a trio of teenage girls occasionally turn into a sort of Greek chorus, providing Andrews Sisters-style musical commentary on the action. Kirshenbaum puts most of his ballads firmly in the reflective post-Sondheim tradition, with some fine melodies along the way – most notably for the touching "Someone to Dance With Me."

Then there's librettist Hunter Foster, who is currently wowing audiences as the romantic lead of Urinetown. He has adapted the story with sensitivity, keeping it simple while displaying a genuine gift for comedy. It's not enough that Foster is a hot actor with a socko voice – he can write too? That's enough to make some people jealous, but I'll settle for thanking heaven that such a versatile talent is still getting noticed these days.

The authors have a bit of trouble with the final scenes, which involve some very difficult emotional leaps. Moments which should be moving just manage to evoke one's sympathy. But that is an imperfection, not a capital crime. After a satisfying meal, you don't berate the chefs if the coffee is not quite hot enough.

The sets by James Youmans turn the tiny Variety Arts stage into an eye-pleasing vision of beaches and summer skies, and Pamela Scofield's costumes hit all the right period vibes. Tim Hunter provides particularly handsome lighting effects, and the staging by Gabriel Barre brought everything together with polish and emotional focus. Musical director Lynne Shankel's orchestrations worked wonders despite the fact that her band was divided to either side of the stage.

I can report that all the talk about newcomer Ryan Driscoll is fully justified. As cute as any MGM boy next door, he makes Hermie's gawky pain and wild glee irresistible. And to think he was an usher at Goodspeed Opera House when an audition landed him in this role. I can only hope we see a lot more of Driscoll in the future. As the woman of his dreams, handsome Kate Jennings Grant sings capably, but I do wish she had the indefinable appeal that would make Hermie's infatuation with her more convincing.

Brett Tabisel, who made such an impression in Big, delivers another knockout comic performance as the hopelessly horny Oscy, and Jason Marcus finds the heart beneath Benji's nerdy facade. Standouts in the strong ensemble included Bill Kux as the wry pharmacist, and the exuberant Megan Valerie Walker as a buxom slut.

The failure of Summer of '42 does not rest with its creators or its cast. That failure rests with theater goers who refuse to see a show that doesn't boast bankable stars or unanimous rave reviews. There is more to the musical theater than Rent, Lion King and The Producers. If a show like Summer of '42 can no longer make it in the commercial theater, then the musical as an art form has lost a major piece of its soul.

It is a good thing The Fantasticks came along 42 years ago. It wouldn't stand a chance today.

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