Theater

'Summer of '42': A Musical That Doesn't Quite Score

Dorothy (Nancy Snow) with Hermie (Ryan Nealy) in the musical at Round House.
Dorothy (Nancy Snow) with Hermie (Ryan Nealy) in the musical at Round House. (By Stan Barouh -- Round House Theatre)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sex, sex, sex. Is that all that 15-year-old boys think about? Well, yes, actually, and in the musical version of "Summer of '42," it's all they ever sing about, their numbers detailing one rite of carnal initiation after another: first schoolboy crush, first grope in the movie house, first purchase of drugstore protection, first frolic in the sand.

These pubescent Lotharios express their lusts through their larynxes as well as their loins; when the show is feeding off their sexual energy, "Summer of '42" hits an agreeable stride. The evening's high point is the catchy "Unfinished Business," in which the three boys plot out their adventures in the pages of a clinical guide to coitus.

You might recall, however, from the nostalgic 1971 movie of the same title that the story revolves more centrally around the feelings that one of the boys, Hermie, develops for an older woman (played in the movie by swoon-inducing Jennifer O'Neill). And it is on this score that the musical, receiving its area premiere at Round House Theatre, curdles and sputters.

The book writer, Hunter Foster, and composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum reveal far more resourcefulness in their burlesque of young goofballs in love than in the portrait of an awkward teenager's worship of a lovely, lonely war bride during the summer after Pearl Harbor.

The placid scenes between sweet Hermie (Ryan Nealy) and sunny Dorothy (Nancy Snow) too starchily invoke the familiar patterns of coming-of-age stories. The writers, uncertain of how to deepen this relationship, merely reiterate Hermie's discomfort. Time and again, Nealy's sheepish Hermie says the wrong little thing or does the wrong little thing in Dorothy's unwittingly intimidating presence. You can practically watch the lumps forming in Nealy's throat as his Hermie commits one mortifying minor faux pas after another.

That grows increasingly trite, particularly because Dorothy is conceived less as a character than as a paper doll. Yes, the musical is a reflection of an older Hermie's memories of a golden summer, and Dorothy -- whose husband has gone to war -- is an idealized creation. Snow is called upon to do little more than to look fetching and sing fetchingly, both of which she accomplishes. It's just not enough substance to sustain a two-act musical.

As a result, when Dorothy and Hermie finally get down to, um, business, an audience is not adequately prepared for her abrupt transformation from fantasy figure to seductress of underage boy. (Not to get too puritanical about it, but while Hermie is surely grateful, the local district attorney might be inclined to a dimmer view.)

Based on Herman Raucher's novel as well as his screenplay, "Summer of '42" distinguishes between the earthy distractions of adolescent boys and the harder tasks faced by the men a few years older than Hermie and his pals, Oscy (Michael Vitaly Sazonov) and Benjie (David McLellan).

On the island for the summer, Hermie and friends seek out pleasure, which for nerdy Benjie means bird-watching and for wolf-in-training Oscy means girls, girls, girls. (These actors, college graduates all, are too old to be credible as 15-year-olds, but even so, the live-wire Sazonov brings an infectious, feral kind of joy-of-the-hunt to Oscy). It is Oscy's job to continually scoff at Hermie's fixation on the older woman, to try to redirect his ardor toward younger and more available girls, while the role of immature Benjie is to shriek in terror at the mere presence of the opposite sex.

In rather predictable attempts at embroidery, Foster and Kirshenbaum give us a trio of singers who break in at regular intervals with gentle parodies of the Andrews Sisters; more intrusive is the staging of radio transmissions by an actor (Christopher Bloch) playing gossipmonger Walter Winchell. The rudimentary choreography by Ilona Kessell is enlivened only by about a minute of jitterbugging.

Director Meredith McDonough and set designer James Kronzer create the illusion of burnished memory by framing the stage in the scalloped edges of a vintage postcard. The stationary set picturesquely conjures the idyllic remove of a resort-island cottage in Maine, nestled in the sand dunes. Rosemary Pardee's costumes, particularly for the girls, contribute winningly to a bygone feel.

McDonough's serviceable staging adheres to the dictates of the story, atmospherically evoking something akin to a Pepperidge Farm commercial by the sea. Vocally, her actors are up to the requirements of the slight and conventional score.

Nealy imbues Hermie with appealing cluelessness, especially in a number in the island's general store, in which he submits to that humiliating ritual of teenage boyhood, the buying of the condom. He even manages at times to convey a hint of mysterious sadness: What other voids, you wonder, are filled in his adoration of Dorothy?

Still, it's Sazonov and his rendering of Hermie's cruder pal who most effectively bottles the spirit of the more resonant evening this might have been. In the vital life-force he represents, we can feel the warmth of a more incandescent summer.

Summer of '42, music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, book by Hunter Foster, based on the novel and screenplay by Herman Raucher. Directed by Meredith McDonough. Music direction, Christopher Youstra; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Matthew M. Nielson. With Will Gartshore, Katherine Ross Wolfe, Jennifer Timberlake, Meghan Touey. About 2 hours. Through June 24 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit http://www.roundhousetheatre.org.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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