At a time when the Broadway musical is conceived as a full frontal attack on the senses -- a zoo's worth of cats leaping all over a theater seems to be the current yardstick -- the revival of "Take Me Along" in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater might strike you as a rather modest proposition.
Don't let that deter you. This unassuming little production, mounted by the Goodspeed Opera House, may march to a different -- and decidedly less flamboyant -- drummer. But it sneaks up on you. All the while you are waiting for the big production number that never comes, or the song that threatens to stop the proceedings dead in their tracks, it is doing something else: Patiently spinning its web of sweet charms.
The setting is Centerville, Conn., a town not far removed, spiritually, from Grovers Corners, N.H. Except for the promise of Fourth of July fireworks later in the day, there isn't a blitz on the blue, turn-of-the-century horizon. There is, however, a lot of quiet beguilement in the making. Assuming you have at least one sentimental bone in your body, "Take Me Along" will find it and activate it.
Written in 1959, the musical is based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," that normally dour playwright's one comedy. Turning his own cursed upbringing inside out, O'Neill managed to create a portrait of the all-American family as tender and nostalgic as Norman Rockwell's cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. Indeed, Nat Miller, the small-town newspaper editor, and his white-aproned wife Essie are picture-perfect parents, more than equipped with enough love and understanding to handle the day's tribulations.
You see, boozy Uncle Sid has descended upon them for a stay, relighting the romantic hopes of prudish Aunt Lily, who keeps waiting for him to reform his raucous ways. Sid announces he's changed, but all he really means is "from bourbon to rye." Meanwhile, the Millers' younger son, Richard, is experiencing the upheavals of puppy love, fueled by the works of such scandalous writers as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Feeling wildly misunderstood, he will go off on a toot -- his first -- at the Pleasant Beach House, "the passion pit of Connecticut." From this tempest in a New England teacup, everyone will emerge a little older, a little wiser, even a little hung-over. But no worse, really, for the wear and tear.
Adapting the play for the musical stage, Joseph Stein and Robert Russell succeeded in preserving much of its amber glow. Although none of the songs in Bob Merrill's score ever broke free of the show to attain independent life of its own, most of them are splendidly tailored to the homespun circumstances. Merrill has contributed three new numbers to this revival. One, "In the Company of Men," is a lulu that affords the male contingent the opportunity to let loose at the town picnic and undertake a drunken kick-line. Twice.
For the most part, however, the songs are far more intimate in tone, as if Merrill were eavesdropping on his characters' yearnings and private doubts. The best are Lily's lilting solos, "We're Home" and "Promise Me a Rose," and the duets she shares with Sid, "I Get Embarrassed" and "But Yours." They are not numbers that strike out boldly over the footlights in the conquest of an audience. Like the score as a whole, they win you over -- content, as they are, to cast a gentle melodic light on the characters and leave the bonfires to others. To some spectators, the approach may seem quaintly outmoded. Far more, I suspect, will find it refreshing.
Much of the appeal of the production, in fact, stems from its willingness to stay small. You can easily envision a more opulent revival than this one, although James Leonard Joy's sets and David Toser's costumes certainly conjure up a tidy Victorian world, where every pin has its cushion. I don't think it would have hurt if a few more bodies had been added to the chorus. And frankly, Thomas Gruenewald's direction is a fairly pedestrian affair much of the time.
But the absence of pyrotechnics is, in one way, a blessing. If there are no stars in this production, there are, by the same token, no star turns to detract from it. The emphasis is very much on the characters themselves -- and they are warm and winning. I can envision curly-haired Gary Landon Wright becoming a teen-age heartthrob in the not-so-distant future. For the time being, he is the perfect embodiment of Richard, the all-American son who will go so far in his rebellion as to let a $5 tart sit on his lap, but a mere 24 hours later will be kissing his mother and father lovingly on the cheek before going to bed.
Beth Fowler appears the usual pinched small-town spinster at first. But the actress goes on to depict all the tremulous hopes and silly fears inside Lily with such honesty that when love finally comes her way, you will feel awfully good for her. As Sid, the character Jackie Gleason created, Kurt Knudson bears a strong resemblance in physique and manner to his predecessor. By opening up his heart and revealing the insecurities under the bluster, he makes the role surprisingly poignant and personal. Robert Nichols, qualifying rectitude with a hint of vanity, is a sure asset as Nat Miller. And so is Taryn Grimes as Richard's petulant sweetheart. The others, if not standouts, are at least proficient enough to keep the evening functioning smoothly.
We are so accustomed to din and spectacle in our musicals these days that "Take Me Along" may seem a bit tame initially. Still, if you lower your sights at the outset, you will discover that this little show actually contains a breadth of pleasures. It doesn't necessarily take $1 million worth of feathers to make a musical. Decent people sorting out their lives on a sunny summer's day can do it as well.
TAKE ME ALONG. Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill; book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell. Directed by Thomas Gruenewald; choreography, Dan Siretta; musical direction, Lynn Crigler. With Beth Fowler, Taryn Grimes, Betty Johnson, Kurt Knudson, Robert Nichols, Gary Landon Wright. At the Eisenhower Theater through March 10.