News Column

"Summer of '42": A small-scale musical beautifully crafted

July 30, 2013

YellowBrix

July 30--Summer of '42 -- the musical? The well-remembered but not-exactly-classic film would not seem to cry out for song, since so much of it was seashore scenery and long, dialogue-free passages except when its teenage characters berated themselves for all the dopey things they say.

Yet the musical exists, and opened over the weekend at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, having originated roughly a decade ago, though its Off-Broadway presence reportedly was torpedoed by the downturn in theater business that followed 9/11.

The world was perhaps too preoccupied with impending war to take on this sweet, nostalgic look at romance on the sidelines of World War II. Though not very original (the score is basically William Finn's Falsettos, with all its nervous anticipatory rhythms), this small-scale musical is beautifully crafted and perfectly viable -- especially as presented with the atmospheric production and winning cast at Bucks County Playhouse.

The total package may well be a model for the newly revived theater's identity: a stage loaded with performing talent in an amiable, medium-weight show that hasn't been so widely seen as to be a summer rerun.

The 1971 film was refreshing for its tightly focused viewpoint: Its story of three 15-year-old boys having their first sexual romances during a summer in Nantucket (in the musical, it's Maine) was told so strictly through their eyes that you never even saw their parents. Wisely, this stage version opens up the viewpoints (parents are still absent) and gives the characters around them so much more to say -- and sing about -- that it's almost a pop opera.

More than most any other work in that genre, this one mixes singing and speaking with fluidity and an unerring sense of what sentiments belong where. For all the limitations of David Kirshenbaum's music, his lyrics bring wit and depth to the characters, even giving an intellectual rapport between the infatuated boy Hermie and Dorothy, the young bride across town, whose husband is overseas.

Hunter Foster's book gives more room to secondary characters. When Hermie is buying condoms, the drugstore owner has a humorous song about the numerous varieties. And, being a musical, the piece has a rich sense of time and place, with period-flavored songs clearly inspired by the Andrews Sisters.

Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault's sets made you wish you were there. So does the cast. In the central role of Hermie, the appropriately lanky Chris McCarrell seems to be all hair and teeth, while clearly differentiating the exterior pretension he presents to the world and the teenage angst underneath. Chelsea Packard initially seems to be playing Dorothy as a sex bomb rather than your basic bride next door. Later, you're so drawn in by her warmth and pathos that her exterior glamour doesn't matter.

All the secondary characters are excellent, especially William Youmans, who doubles as the druggist and as Walter Winchell (narrating events of the outside world), directed by Foster with a well-balanced sense of ensemble.

Small but subtle plus: The six-person orchestra was in one of the side boxes, which meant the actors and their story were even closer the audience.

Theater

Summer of '42

Through Aug. 11 at the Bucks County Playhouse. Tickets: $29-$57.50. Information: 215-862-2121or www.bcptheater.org

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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