“The Last Days of Summer” aims in several poignant directions but misses most of its interesting targets.
The musical, which inaugurates George Street Playhouse’s new home in New Brunswick, is about a boy, age 12 when we meet him, seeking a longed-for father figure in a baseball player he idolizes.
Book writer-lyricist Steve Kluger, whose novel “Last Days” is the basis for the play, and composer Jason Howland go beyond one lad’s craving for paternal affection and guidance to delve into such subjects as abandonment, loss, unfairness, bullying, tempering one’s destructive urges, war’s effect on the innocent, and maturing by doing a positive thing for the wrong reason or a courageous thing for the right one.
They fill their show with hot-button moments and situations but do so in a glib, convenient shorthand that stops at mention and suggestion and never truly explores anything broached.
Emotions are obvious and paper-thin. Nothing catches hold to promote care or interest in the characters. Jeff Calhoun’s production perks along gamely, and some performers shine, but the piece lacks exactly what another baseball opus says “you gotta have” — heart.
While “Last Days” never grabs or grips, it doesn’t flag or bore as much as it generates wonder whether it will find its core and come to a moving point.
It’s pleasant enough to watch but ultimately unrewarding because its central plot, the relationship between the boy and the ball player, is clouded by matters that in a better piece may have provided texture but in “Last Days” come across as contrivances thrown in to create pathos or give the impression of complexity.
Many errant scenes involve the coming of World War II. “Last Days of Summer” begins in 1940 and encompasses the bombing of Pearl Harbor and early battles in the Pacific. In opening scenes the boy, Joey Margolis, is called names insulting to Jews by the neighborhood bully. Also taunted is his Japanese friend.
Kluger is predictably transparent about where these episodes might lead, but scenes involving anti-Semitism or Japanese internment seem too self-consciously included to spawn due angst or suffering. He wants to make a statement, but he ends up minimizing a situation he seems intent on illuminating by making it seem simplistic instead of sad, mistaking declarations of outrage for making a point, and putting a politically popular 21st-century spin on 1942 events.
“Last Days of Summer” works best when it is a standard comedy. Kluger deftly sets up a joke. His composition has wit and sophistication. Even his lyrics take a loopy path and contain some shrewd rhymes and word plays similar to David Zippel’s in “City of Angels.”
It’s the comic scenes that keep “Last Days of Summer” entertaining despite its flaws. If Kluger dealt only with Joey and Charlie, the ball player, he might not fulfill all he wanted to address, but he’d have a stronger, more cohesive musical.
Calhoun can also instill more depth. The bullying scenes seem tame and mild. There’s danger portrayed on stage, but no sense of danger crosses the proscenium. Joey begins his campaign to get Banks’ attention via letters in which he tells outrageous lies that amuse him. This not only makes Joey a brat and a prankster, but it takes away any sympathy he might engender by being fatherless and coveting a filial relationship with an adult male. Pain and pathos are missing from early scenes. They’re more irritating than funny or moving, and they prevent Joey from being lovable or worthy of a response. You side with Charlie, who spots the kid as a fake and only answers him when his girlfriend threatens to leave if he doesn’t.
Charlie, a genuine Major League star who will amass 160-some RBI in the season depicted, becomes the one who earns our interest. Joey never does, not even his adult version whose petulance deserves more disdain than empathy.
“Last Days of Summer” never becomes a warm show. It delights the most when it’s comic, rouses the most when it’s musical. Bobby Conte Thornton, as Charlie, sings beautifully and acts with suitable swagger. He is a reason to pay attention, but the biggest and best number in the show goes to Will Burton as a ball player teaching Joey how to attract a girl, and the funniest, most off-beat performance is Don Stephenson’s as a cynical rabbi.
Teal Wicks amuses with her toughness as Charlie’s girlfriend, a club singer with a great style. Danny Binstock is correctly neurotic as the adult Joey. Christine Pedi is pure 1940s as an outspoken maiden aunt. Mylinda Hull conveys modest charm as Joey’s mother.
Julian Emile Lerner is a genuine find. As Joey, he mentions Mickey Rooney, and that’s who Lerner resembles. He is a true vaudevillian who sings with gusto, dances with flair, and does a mean tap.
Jason Howland’s score is one of the highlights. Howland writes genuine show music, with the spirit of the 1940s and the feel of the ’50s and ’60s Broadway. No rock or hip-hop. Nor Sondheimian phrases. This is a blessing. Wicks particularly benefits by having some snazzy club numbers to sing. Kluger is an apt lyricist, but you have to get used to songs abounding in pronouns and extolling you, me, you and me, and us.
Loren Shaw’s costumes celebrate the period being nicely swanky for Wicks and respectably dowdy for Pedi. And Beowulf Boritt’s set, aided by projections, takes us to several places.
Last Days of Summer, George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through November 10, Tuesday through Saturday (except for Wed., Nov. 6), 8 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday (and Thurs., Nov. 7), 2 p.m. $25 to $85. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.