George Street Playhouse musical was well worth the wait
It was the summer of 1969, the last summer of the ’60s. Neil Armstrong was about to be the first person to walk on the surface of the moon. The Woodstock festival was about to take place on Max Yazgur’s farm. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had filtered its way through the minds of many women during this decade. And the Kantrowitz family of Flatbush was heading once more to Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony in the Catskill Mountains.
It’s the way the Kantrowitzes responded to the changes of the decade that formed the basis of the 1999 movie A Walk on the Moon, written by Pamela Gray. Ms. Gray, in collaboration with composer/lyricists Paul Scott Goodman and AnnMarie Milazzo, has transformed her movie script into a stage musical of the same name. It is this musical that the George Street Playhouse is presenting after a two-year pandemic hiatus, and it’s well worth the wait.
The Kantrowitzes — matriarch Lillian, parents Marty and Pearl, 15-year-old Allison, and 8-year-old Danny — and their friends the Liebermans, the Appelbaums, and the Gelfands have spent many comfortable, familiar summers at this Catskills resort. While the men are at work in the city during the week, their wives and children take advantage of what the resort has to offer, from day camp for the younger children to mah-jongg and other activities for the women.
But change has been in the air this decade, and it all seems to come to a head this summer. Allison yearns to participate in protests and revolution, and news of a music festival within walking distance of the resort is deliciously tempting, especially with the prospect of going with Ross Epstein, a budding rock musician and a new arrival at the resort. And the old “Blouse Man,” who comes around regularly, has retired, replaced by a younger man, Walker Jerome, who catches the attention of the ladies in the colony.
Pearl, in particular, feels that the entire decade has passed her by. Once dreaming of a career as a journalist, she has submerged her ambitions for herself to being Marty’s wife and the kids’ mother. Her interactions with the flirtatious Walker lead her to question her life and entertain ideas of radical change.
The center of the show is Pearl, embodied by the talented Jackie Burns. She brilliantly creates a conflicted, longing woman who deeply loves her family but wonders if she has given too much of her identity to play her assigned roles in the family unit. Her Pearl is unsure about new ideas yet retains enough of her youthful sense of adventure to explore them. Burns’ magnificent performance, coupled with her strong singing voice, is the solid core around which this show is built.
Matching Burns’ performance is Carly Gendell as Alison, a nascent activist full of the naive certainty of her own righteousness and disdain of older generations, whose world is rocked by changes in her mother. Gendell’s performance creates a character that, in lesser hands, could be the “villain” of the piece, yet Gendell is unafraid to show us a person of contradictions and conflicts, still trying to find her way into adulthood. Jill Abramovitz as Lillian, Pearl’s mother-in-law, is a calm, steadying force who senses problems with Pearl and Marty’s marriage and tries to stave off disaster; and Jonah Platt shines as Marty, a decent guy doing his best to provide for and protect his family, a loving husband, father, and son and a loyal yet competitive friend.
For the most part, the supporting cast gives fine performances, bringing their characters to unique life: David R. Gordon and Blair Goldberg as the Liebermans; Stephanie Lynne Mason and Dan Rosales as the Applebaums; Megan Kane and Jonathon Timpanelli as the Gelfands; and Wesley Zurick’s Ross. The one letdown to me was John Arthur Greene as Walker Jerome, the “Blouse Man.” While a competent performer and singer, Greene’s Walker lacked the air of dangerous charm and charisma, the undertone of erotic menace, that would cause Pearl to question her emotional life. This made the love triangle between Pearl, Marty, and Walker weaker and less compelling for the audience.
Pamela Gray has done a good job in rewriting her screenplay into a stage script, although it is in need of a little fleshing out of some story elements. The songs by Goodman and Milazzo (with some additional lyrics by Gray) capture the mood of that summer of 1969 as the culmination of the turbulence of the 1960s, as well as the emotions and desires of the characters.
Standout numbers include the opener, “Summer of All Summers”; Pearl’s songs of longing and growing self-confidence — “Out of This World,” “Ground Beneath My Feet,” “Not Willing to Lose” — and her reprise of “Summer of All Summers,” bringing the show full circle to its conclusion; “Yesterday Today,” Allison’s song of anguish at her mother’s perceived betrayal (a strong song, but a little too articulate for a selfishly upset 15-year-old); “Life Has a Bigger Say,” Lillian’s telling of the sacrifices her son has made for his family; and “We Made You”, Marty’s passionate confirmation to a shaken Allison of his choices in life and his love for his family.
The physical production is magnificent, the biggest effort George Street Playhouse has ever made for a show. Scenes move seamlessly from the Kantrowitz’s bungalow to the lake and woods of the resort. Enormous credit goes to the design team: scenic consultant and projection designer Tai Yarden; costume designer Linda Cho; lighting designer Robert Wierzel; and sound designer Leon Rothenberg; and to the geniuses at George Street’s costume and scenic studios who brought the designs into existence.
While I feel A Walk on the Moon is not yet ready for a transfer to Broadway, it is more a matter of making a series of small changes rather than doing a massive overhaul. With the understanding that this is a work-in-progress, A Walk on the Moon is a show worth seeing, and one that will, judging by the audience’s reaction at the performance I attended, be an enjoyable evening in the theatre. George Street Playhouse has a hit on its stage, and I urge you to see A Walk on the Moon as soon as you can before its run ends.
A Walk on the Moon is presented by George Street Playhouse at the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through May 21st. For more information or to order tickets, visit georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 973-246-7717. Please note: Patrons are required to show proof of vaccination, including a booster shot (if eligible) or a negative PCR test within 72 hours of the performance for admission to the New Brunswick PAC. Masks must be worn within the building at all times.
In the interests of transparency: Allen Neuner, our theatre reviewer, is employed by the George Street Playhouse in their Patron Services Office.