Valentine’s Day is gone but the sentiments of old-fashioned love are still wafting through the air in the Irish Repertory’s romantically-scented revival of this sweet but generally underrated musical. A captivating adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, "Ah, Wilderness," it is mainly buoyed by the beguiling music and lyrics of Bob Merrill. It can also boast that the book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell has an unselfconscious literacy that doesn’t fail its source.
The delicate liveliness of Charlotte Moore’s direction is a plus despite a major role that she unfortunately has allowed to go unchecked and out-of-control. Moore has certainly figured out how to make the best use of the Irish Rep’s cramped stage. Set designer James Morgan has literally papered almost every space, column, and wall with colorful drawings that bring a whimsical depiction of Centerville, Connecticut, on the Fourth of July 1920, although O’Neill actually set his play in 1906 as was the original 1959 Broadway production and the revival in 1985. But, after all, it’s Independence Day, and that alone gives Moore the freedom to update the play for whatever reason that may remain a mystery.
It’s hard to believe that almost half a century has passed since this winsome idyll provided beloved multi-talented TV comedian Jackie Gleason with a most auspicious vehicle. It’s a good bet that most members of the audience are not carrying around a memory of the famously top-heavy Gleason as Uncle Sid. But it’s a better bet that you will want to quickly erase from your mind the somewhat fatuous performance by the otherwise fine actor Don Stephenson as Uncle Sid, the family alcoholic. Perhaps it is Stephenson’s intention to show Sid as an irredeemably obnoxious fellow, a loser without a single appealing or redeeming quality. This may be partly inherent in the role, but Stephenson’s portrayal is too defined by cloying posturing, and it elicits neither our sympathy nor our compassion. As it is now being portrayed with a determinedly fey esprit, it also brings a totally new perspective to Sid’s on-again off-again romance with Lily Miller, the spinster schoolteacher.
The rest of the Miller family characters are more engagingly balanced within the context of the plot. The adolescent yearnings and misadventures of young poetry-spouting Richard (Teddy Eck), the wide-eyed bewilderment of his sweetheart, Muriel (Emily Skeggs), who doesn’t understand a word Richard says, and the pseudo-sophistication of his older brother, Art (Dewey Caddell), the pipe-smoking Yale man, may all seem a trifle too fantasized. But the resulting effect of O’Neill’s touching quest for a childhood he never knew is in itself a wish fulfillment.
William Parry is especially touching as Nat Miller, the loving husband and father who tries vainly to be stern. His wistful thoughts on growing older, as expressed in "Staying Young," don’t get in the way of youthful spirit as he and Sid (in one of Stephenson’s more commendable exhibitions) do a soft-shoe to the title song. Choreographer Barry McNabb has staged the musical numbers with compact invention.
As Nat’s wife Essie, Donna Bullock is appropriately warm and expressive. But if any role has the ability to steal the thunder it is that of spinster sister Lily (Beth Glover). Her red hair and radiant looks give the musical more sparkle than do the occasional flash of fireworks. Despite the energy she has to expend on intimating she is in love with a jerk, she is a delight reflecting the coy side of her nature with "I Get Embarrassed." It’s a pity that director Moore doesn’t let her sing "Knights on White Horses," the poignant song that Merrill wrote for the 1985 revival.
The Pleasant Beach House, "the passion pit of Connecticut," is the setting for the show’s most rousing number (also written for the 1985 revival) "If Jesus Don’t Love Ya. . . Jack Daniels Will," led by a vivacious Anastasia Barzeee as a lady of the evening; Wint (Justin Packard), the young man who leads Richard astray; and the ensemble of prospective patrons. Tommy Miller is fine as the youngest Miller boy and Gordon Stanley is grumpy enough as Muriel’s straight-laced father.
Various settings are achieved efficiently by the use of a turntable and the modest use of props and furnishings. Especially winning was the music created by a quartet of musicians (loved the banjo) seated behind audience members in the rear of stage right. Costume designer Linda Fisher’s graceful period costumes, and Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting help complete a portrait of a time when O’Neill could see himself part of "a dream walking."
"Take Me Along" opened on Broadway in 1959 starring Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Robert Morse, and Eileen Herlie. An underappreciated revival that had originated at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House opened on Broadway in 1985 and closed after seven previews and one regular performance (opening night). It, however, boasted some new material and songs by the original collaborators; some are happily included in this revival. HHH
"Take Me Along," through Sunday, April 13, although an extension is likely, Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street $55 to $60. 212-727-2737.