George Street Playhouse kicks off at new theatre with Last Days of Summer
George Street Playhouse kicks off its inaugural season at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center with a new musical, Last Days of Summer, adapted from his own novel by playwright/lyricist Steve Kluger with music by Jason Howland. It charts the coming of age of a young Jewish boy in Brooklyn and his friendship with a professional baseball player during the early 1940’s. It is quite funny, touching in spots, and with a lively and talented cast that puts over the show’s musical numbers, written in a style reminiscent of Broadway and jazz composer Cy Coleman. It is a joyous show and well worth seeing.
In present-day Brooklyn, Chuckie Margolis opens a box of his father’s childhood memorabilia, for which his dad Joe, a sports writer, scolds him. Although Joe wishes to forget his childhood, seeing the items sends him back to the summer of 1941 (“I Don’t Want to Remember”). Joey Margolis and his best friend Craig Nakamura play superheroes, get beat up by the local bully, and write letters to Charlie Banks, star third baseman for the New York Giants, trying to get him to dedicate a home run to Joey over the radio. Joey, whose father ran off with his secretary, imagines a relationship where Charlie is his best friend, taking his father’s place. Charlie’s anger problems jeopardize his place on the team and his relationship with his fiancée, singer Hazel MacKay (“They Know That It’s Me”). Hazel, seeing one of Joey’s letters, coerces Charlie into visiting the boy (“I Could Be Anything for You”). A grudging friendship develops, and during a Sabbath dinner (one of the show’s comic high points) Charlie agrees to stand up for Joey at the boy’s bar mitzvah. Finagling his way into a batboy job, Joey travels for away games with the team, who pitch in to help him learn Hebrew for his bar mitzvah (“The Only Way to Score”). Joey also gets advice from Charlie’s best friend and teammate Stuke, a perennial strike-out with women, on how best to get a girl to like him (“You’ve Got to Be Real”). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Charlie and Stuke enlist in the Army. Charlie marries Hazel in a beat-the-clock Jewish ceremony at Penn Station before the troop train leaves (“The Wedding”). Back in the present, Joe deals with his memories because of revelations about his boyhood hero (“You Never Have to Say Goodbye”).
Jeff Calhoun as the director pulls strong performances from his outstanding cast. Bobby Conte Thornton gives a powerful performance as Charlie, who hides the source of his anger problems while mourning a beloved older brother. Danny Binstock’s older Joe is a key player in some of the past scenes, trying to give his younger self warnings about trusting Charlie too much out of his own bitterness over a deep sense of betrayal. Fine comic portrayals are delivered by Will Burton as Stuke, Don Stephenson as the Rabbi, and Christine Pedi as Joey’s Aunt Carrie. While the show mostly focuses on male mentoring relationships, there are two strong female characters whose stories could stand being fleshed out a bit more. Teal Wicks’ portrayal of Hazel shows a woman making a success in the tough world of show business, while Mylinda Hull as Ida, Joey’s mother, shows a single woman raising a son alone in the latter years of the Great Depression.
Director Calhoun and assistant director/choreographer Paul McGill keep the play moving fluidly throughout, in both musical numbers and non-musical scenes, showing an elegant mastery of moving people realistically over the theatre’s large stage space. Beowulf Boritt’s spare set, skillfully lit by Ken Billington, transforms from Joe’s attic to the streets of Brooklyn, from ballparks across the country to Penn Station, and from the jungles of a Pacific island to Hazel’s nightclub. Loren Shaw’s costumes are period-perfect, especially the sexy, stylish wardrobe created for Hazel. The orchestra is led in a swinging 40’s style by musical director/conductor/keyboardist Lon Hoyt
Last Days of Summer recalls a past tinged with romance and nostalgia, lovingly presented by a skillful director and cast who treat the subject matter with respect and good humor and emotional honesty almost from the start. It is a fine choice to inaugurate George Street’s first season in its new home and to open the spacious and comfortable Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre. It shows promise for future George Street musical productions in space finally large enough to accommodate not only a large show but an orchestra in its own pit and not hidden behind the scenes. For a delightful time in the theatre, I recommend you take a trip into the past to spend time during the Last Days of Summer!
Last Days of Summer is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through November 10, 2019. For tickets and information, visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.