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After spending two seasons exiled in a former agricultural building on the outskirts of the Rutgers University campus, George Street Playhouse has finally come home to downtown New Brunswick. The 45-year-old company is now an anchor tenant of the newly built New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, a handsome complex with two theater spaces and a bar that occupies the company’s former space on Livingston Avenue. It’s almost worth taking in Last Days of Summer, the world-premiere musical that opens the compound, to get a look at the comfortable and attractive Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater, where it plays.
Of course, doing so would require an unsuspecting audience member to sit through this embarrassingly retrograde stroll down memory lane, written by Steve Kluger (book and lyrics) and Jason Howland (music and arrangements). Having endured the shockingly saccharine proceedings myself, I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone else put themselves in that position. But I can tell you that the bar serves excellent chardonnay, which can be brought to your seat—several glasses will be necessary.
Where’d the money go?
Last Days of Summer clearly has an eye toward the Main Stem. The George Street staging is produced in association with Tony-winner Daryl Roth, and the director/choreographer is Jeff Calhoun, who shepherded Disney’s Newsies to a successful run on Broadway. I’m not exactly sure where Roth’s money went, since the physical production (sets by Beowulf Borritt, lighting by Ken Billington) largely consists of moving cardboard boxes, plus a pair of trash cans that look pilfered from a community theater production of Endgame. It also didn’t go to a fully functioning sound system, since overamplification and a poor balance between the orchestra pit and the performers onstage washed out at least fifty percent of the lyrics. Actually, that might have been a blessing in disguise.
In all seriousness, though, it’s hard to imagine that at a time when Broadway is finding success with musically and dramatically inventive properties like Hadestown, The Band’s Visit and Fun Home, there would be room (or an audience) for such a schlocky and self-indulgent nostalgia trip. And as the New York prices nearby creep ever upward, the thought of charging up to $85 a pop for such slim dramaturgy, shoddy production values, and stock characterization is enough to warrant lodging a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
Indeed, I lost count of the clichés on parade by the five-minute mark. The story centers on Joey Margolis (Julian Emile Lerner), a bullied Brooklyn boy in the early 1940s, whose passion for baseball (and desire to put his tormentors in their place) leads him to write increasingly fantastical letters to Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton), a player he idolizes on the New York Giants. (In the days before athletes commanded multimillion-dollar salaries and lived in McMansions, they were apparently as accessible as the local beat cop.) Joey’s father deserted the family—which includes a long-suffering mother (Mylinda Hull) and wisecracking aunt (Christine Pedi)—to marry his secretary, and Charlie quickly becomes a surrogate. Joey even convinces his rabbi (Don Stephenson) to let the gentile Charlie stand for him at his bar mitzvah, even though it’s a shande!
Fractious fatherly relationships are the gray matter of heterosexual theater, and Kluger’s script offers little in the way of new insight as to how abandonment affects the psyche. Charlie also has parental agita, natch, as well as a dead, beloved brother—the latter a source of predictable consternation (“Don’t say his name!”) and the schmaltziest of remembrances. As the time period suggests, Last Days of Summer also folds in the looming threat of World War II, while condescendingly skimming the atrocities of Japanese American internment in the United States. Each thematic element has the depth of a half-filled wading pool.
Kluger and Howland employ a framing device that features a grown-up Joey (played by Danny Binstock), now a sportswriter and father himself, working through another trauma of its own. (No spoilers from me, but any half-sentient spectator will figure it out long before the plot point reveals itself.) The concept is intriguing but under-baked, as Binstock’s adult Joey too often takes a backseat to the memory play. Unlike in Fun Home, where you feel the adult Alison Bechdel controlling and composing her memories, the device here feels like an afterthought, with Binstock often banished to the periphery.
Hoping for a homer
Howland’s score is as generic and forgettable as the titles of the production’s songs. (Examples: “The Only Way to Score,” “No One Else For Me,” “You Never Have to Say Goodbye.”) The only memorable melody—which is repeated ad infinitum—belongs to a duet between Joey and Charlie called “Who Knows You Better Than I?” It’s notable primarily because it sounds eerily similar to “You’re Nothing Without Me,” from the Cy Coleman/David Zippel musical City of Angels—an infinitely better tune from an infinitely better show.
Thornton possesses some natural charm and a sweet voice, though he’s not immune to the current musical-theater scourge of overly mixing head and chest voice, rather than sustaining a legato line. The effects can be thrilling, but it only drives home the fact that the score itself sounds nothing like the era in which it’s actually set. The youth performers—along with Lerner, they include Sabatino Cruz, Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton, Parker Weathersbee, and Jeslyn Zubrycki—all exhibit the cloying lack of personality common among professional child actors.
Broadway star Teal Wicks (late of The Cher Show) appears as Hazel Mackay, Charlie’s long-suffering paramour and a snazzy club singer. Neither Wicks nor the pastiche number she’s provided have much big-band flair, but her costumes (by Loren Shaw), all high-waisted pants and shimmery gowns, are to die for.
Unfortunately, you can’t hum costumes. (Oh, how I’ve tried!) George Street Playhouse clearly hoped for a homer with Last Days of Summer, but the actual show is lost somewhere in right field.
What, When, Where
Last Days of Summer. By Steve Kluger and Jason Howland. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. George Street Playhouse. Through November 10, 2019, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (732) 246-7717 or georgestreetplayhouse.org.
The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons with questions or access requests should contact Patron Services at (732) 246-7717 as far in advance as possible. There will be an audio-described performance on October 31 at 8pm, and an open-captioned performance on November 2 at 2pm.
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