by Adam Cohen
George Street Playhouse kicks off their new season in a gorgeous space within the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center with the New Jersey premiere of “Last Days of Summer.” The show is a new musical awash in sepia tones. And largely concerns itself with a suburban father reconciling his past to become a better father.
The proscenium arch has been styled as a suburban attic and Beowulf Boritt’s well appointed set fills that attic with tons of boxes. Young Chucky Margolis (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) opens one of his father Joe’s (Danny Binstock) boxes and receives wrath for an invasion of privacy. Within the box are letters Joe wrote as a boy to New York Giant’s baseball star Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton). Joe stalks Charlie as he’s desperately seeking a father figure. Joe’s own unseen father ran off with his secretary and can’t stand up for his son preventing him from having a bar mitzvah.
Two paragraphs in and you can see where this is going. The show set during World War II in Brooklyn has some wonderful moments, great singing, and a misty eyed intent. As adult Joe reviews his past, there’s no revisionist history. He watches as his younger self (Julian Emile Lerner) is set upon by an anti-Semitic bully (Sabatino Cruz). Lerner is all exacting sit-com pluck, which wears out quickly. Beset with what today would be termed stalker tendencies, Joey seeks to ingratiate himself into the life of Banks via letters claiming illness. Joey’s chosen champion doesn’t exactly welcome the extreme attention of a persistent young fan with an overactive imagination. Then again, this yearning, needy kid might be exactly what Banks needs.
Eventually Banks is worn down and a fascinating (unrealistic) friendship is born….standing up for the kid and tutoring him for his bar mitzvah with the help of a Giants road trip the kid comes along for. At the same time, the hard hitting (punches and homeruns) baseball player is fighting to keep his singing fiancé Hazel (Teal Wicks). The kid helps. Oh and there’s a wedding, a gay baseball player, a Japanese best friend (Parker Weathersbee) who gets thrown in an internment camp, and war heroes. And there’s Christine Pedi as Auntie Carrie.
Steve Kluger wrote the book, based on his novel of the same name and he finds a way to cram in all this exposition while making room for his own lyrics and music by Jason Howland. It’s honestly a lot of plot, largely unrealistic, rendering adult Joe a turgid, weird figure. The plucky 12 year old lived a grand life while the adult one creeps about. The songs don’t advance so much as plod the proceedings within act one. As the relationship deepens between Joey and Banks, Lerner’s performance gains nuance and with Thornton there’s authenticity and pathos. There’s a vaudevillian panache to the team helping Joey learn his torah portion and the deepening bond, as Banks reveals his past pains with the mysterious death of a brother.
On the plus side, Wicks blazes new highs with the torchy Don’t Believe in Romance. Her act two duet with Thornton No One Else for Me is lovely. And there’s an odd charm to her duet with Joey (At Tom Kilkenny’s Irish Grille) who tries to impress his later wife by claiming to be a regular performer with Hazel. The baseball player chorus (Junior Mendez, Julio Rey, Peter Saide and Sean Watkinson) get some fine moments. They also double as soldiers. Will Burton’s Stuke (fellow ball player/best friend to Banks) is pivotal but feels like his sub-plot largely got cut. He’s got a fine duet with Lerner but is largely summed up as the gay uncle…, which is a shame.
Kluger’s attempts to reconcile an absent father with the creation of an almost imaginary friend perfect replacement. But the uniqueness of the relationship between young Joey and Banks – largely based on the power of Thornton’s charming, tough guy veneer breaks down with the possibility of redemption and reconciliation holds gravity while the framing device feels false and after school special.
Director Jeff Calhoun’s second act is zippier – especially as the exposition is freed. But the rush to make Banks heroic feels forced and too sudden. There’s a lot of potential within the show – beautiful songs, high caliber performances (Wicks, Thorton, Burton, Weathersbee). Maybe more time and refinement can smooth out the kinks and get the show more fully realized. However the framing device, feels more like a coffin that limits the beating heart within the show and production.
Tickets and information at https://georgestreetplayhouse.org. The production runs through November 10th.