Octogenarian Tony winner George S. Irving is anchoring a sprightly cast in a revival of Kander and Ebb’s neglected musical The Happy Time at the McGinn-Casale Theater in New York City. Like the larger-scale Encores! series at City Center (something! about this type of production! seems to demand! exclamation points!), Musicals Tonight! presents neglected and forgotten musicals in “staged concert” format. I have some comments on the format, in which the cast holds their scripts while performing, but first, to the matter at hand: The Happy Time.
First produced in 1968, the show was Kander and Ebb’s follow-up to their breakout hit Cabaret. The score is quite pleasing and includes some really lovely tunes, including “I Don’t Remember You” and “Please Stay.” Irving, who now plays Grandpère, was a member of the original cast. Here he has a blast playing the gruff but lovable dirty old paterfamilias of a bickering Québécois family that’s sent into a tizzy by the return of prodigal son Jacques (Timothy Warmen).
Though Jacques hesitantly reconnects with his old flame Laurie (the graceful, angel-voiced Sarah Solie), the story’s main relationship is the one between him and his pubescent nephew Bibi (David Geinosky), who yearns to escape his teasing schoolmates and strict father into something like Jacques’s glamorous photographer’s life. As a substitute for a central love story, this relationship works a little weirdly. Warmen, despite some stagey awkwardness early on (and an excessive vibrato), eventually invests Jacques with depth, and Geinosky gives a touching and generous performance as the boy, but the bawdy humor that hops up much of Act I also bestows some unwanted creepiness on the two male leads’ mutual affection. Jacques also suffers an identity crisis that, at least to twenty-first century eyes, suggests a possibly unintended double meaning.
Since Bibi is only thirteen or so, we don’t quite know how to take some of these cues. Fortunately Geinosky (a grown actor) is good at portraying the confusions of adolescence. And the story is fundamentally about how people grow up, and what happens when some people don’t.
There’s plenty of drama in growing up – it’s probably the second most common theme of the stories we tell. But this particular telling lacks the crisp pace and transparent narrative flow that make a great Broadway musical. In the second act, when the father-son-uncle conflict becomes explicit, the drama draws neatly towards completion, but because of the early ambiguity and the show’s length, we look back quizzically on the opening scenes, which is not an intended effect.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a story that follows an arc from lightness and humor to darkness and complexity, but our journey from Jacques’s homey introduction to the bittersweet closing set-piece is too long and meandering. Our expectations, and, to a degree, our interest in the characters get dispersed. Five songs cut from the Broadway show were restored for this production, hence the length of the evening. Some songs, as my companion pointed out, didn’t serve to further the action. (Probably those are the ones that had been originally cut.)
However, it’s nice to hear Kander and Ebb’s entire score, and I’m not sorry I did. In fact, for the music alone I can recommend this production. Winning performances from a well-rounded cast, and the presence of the aged but still sharp and hilarious George S. Irving, help bring the delicious music – flawed story in tow – to life. Larry Daggett as the drunken brother is especially droll. Charly Seamon displays brassy power in the vaudeville number, which is only one of the vehicles for director Thomas Mills’s limber choreography.
But the choreography is also where the format’s weakness is most evident. The actors carry around script binders and refer to them for lines, sometimes even lyrics. This, despite their valiant efforts to work around it, interferes with the flow of the action. I know that in this format the actors aren’t expected to have entirely memorized their parts. But I don’t quite understand how, if there’s enough rehearsal time to learn Kander and Ebb’s tunes with their playful melodies and time changes, and to get down all the cues and blocking and movement and dancing, there isn’t time to learn the lines too. It’s not halfway between a staged reading and a full-on production – it’s much closer to the latter. Hence the strangeness. Admittedly, it’s the first time I’ve seen this sort of production, and I’d welcome any enlightenment.
Through March 18. Call (212) 868-4444 or order tickets online.