Sometimes, you just need a simple story to hit the spot. And “Summer of ‘42,” playing at Bucks County Playhouse through Sunday, August 11, aims to do just that; it’s an adaptation of the beloved 1971 film based on Herman Raucher’s memoir. And this straightforward coming-of-age story of first love is cleanly presented and offered up as light and entertaining midsummer fare.
This edition of the story opened off-Broadway in 2001 and was a victim of the post 9/11 box office drop off. Director and book writer Hunter Foster has risen to fame in the interim years as a stage superstar, particularly in the Broadway runs of “Urinetown” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” It is a shame, because this is the ideal sort of show for breezy regional theater, and I suspect a longer New York life would have opened up this script to productions in high school and community theaters, where it definitely deserves a life.
Set in coastal Maine, “Summer of ‘42” is the story of 15-year-old Hermie (Chris McCarrell) and his two friends Oscy (F. Michael Haynie) and Benjie (Joey Dippel), a “terrible trio” of adolescents caught in a haze of hormonal adventures as they chase down an equally precocious trio of female counterparts. There is also a newlywed woman, Dorothy (Chelsea Packard), waiting for her G.I. husband to return home from the Pacific theater, and the development of Hermie’s schoolboy crush on her. And from there, act one unfolds pretty much as you would expect; there’s some goofy adventures, some pining for an older woman, and plenty of jokes and tropes built around newly-budding sexual identity. It’s all firmly PG and adheres closely to the plot of the film.
It is in act two where some of the more interesting choices — which are true to the memoir and film, but still surprising — occur. The sexual overtones of act one become entirely unambiguous as the boys begin an overt quest to lose their virginity (with mixed results, in the play’s funniest scene), including a trip to the general store to purchase condoms and an ice cream cone (the play’s second funniest scene, by a very narrow margin). And then the specter of war casts its shadow, and the relationship between Hermie and Dorothy takes a turn. It’s a massive tonal shift, and it is sold entirely on the talents of McCarrell and Packard.
Which brings us to the real strength of this production: the cast is universally fantastic, perhaps the strongest ensemble I’ve seen anywhere this summer. The “terrible trio” contrasts well with one another, each boy conveys a very different but believable sense of adolescent vulnerability and a need for connection. Their female counterparts are a little underwritten, but Bailey Buntain, Alyssa Gagarin, and Betsy Hogg do everything they can with these roles to flesh them out. Gagarin takes a particular amount of fun with her role as Oscy’s counterpart. And as Mr. Sanders, William Youmans pretty much steals the show in the general store scene. I’d be tempted to go back for that number alone, come to think of it.
What you are not hearing me praise here is the music — and while it’s perfectly lovely in the moment, it’s not something you’re going to leave the theater humming. Though that is okay in a show such as this — the story, characters, and performances are strong enough to carry the evening.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault’s gorgeous and simple set design, and a welcome attention to period styles in costumes and hair by Nicole V. Moody. This is the kind of show that crosses generational barriers — it’s an ideal conversation-starter between teens, baby boomers, and the greatest generation about the era in question, changing attitudes, and how love stories never seem to fall out of style.
I also need to mention BCP’s box office — I get a real kick out of the smiling and knowledgeable outdoor will-call staff. Bucks County Playhouse is clearly laying the foundations for a long and storied resurgence as a regional powerhouse, and it’s a rebirth that’s been a lot of fun to watch.
“Summer of ‘42, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Wednesday at 4 p.m., Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Through Sunday, August 11, $29 to $57.50. 215-862-2121. www.bcptheater.org.