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The Happy Time: A Gentler Side of Kander and Ebb

Jule Styne musicals are known for their dynamic overtures.  Jerry Herman musicals are known for their catchy production numbers.  But when it comes to opening numbers, you have to turn to the team of composer John Kander and his lyricist partner, the late Fred EbbCabaret's "Willkommen", Chicago's "All That Jazz" and Zorba's "Life Is" are among their dramatically enticing songs that immediately set a musical into a specific time, place and atmosphere.

The title song of their 1968 musical The Happy Time, now receiving an admirable staged reading courtesy of Musicals Tonight!, is another excellent opener, though with its gentle music box waltz melody its not the type of song you'd normally associate with the flashy style of Kander and Ebb.  But The Happy Time, with a book by N. Richard Nash based on Samuel Taylor's play adaptation of Robert Fontaine's novel, is not your typical Kander and Ebb musical.  It's been suggested that the intimate story of a professional photographer (originally played by Robert Goulet in a Tony-winning performance) returning to his home in French Canada and the influence his stories of traveling the world and winning prizes for his work has on his shy adolescent godson who is going through an especially rough puberty (originally played by Michael Rupert) was overwhelmed on Broadway by director/choreographer Gower Champion's elaborate production.  As is the custom with Musicals Tonight!, director/choreographer Thomas Mills' production is a bare-bones reading with simple staging and scripts in hand, allowing the material to be enjoyed on its own merits.  The version used here, which restores material the authors reluctantly cut in Broadway previews, premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1983.

The Happy Time is the third production in Musicals Tonight!'s season dedicated to Broadway's great character actor George S. Irving.  In 1968 Irving played Goulet's brother, who was concerned that his boy's adoration for his uncle would lead him into the same irresponsible lifestyle.  Now at age 84, he's graduated to the co-starring role of Grandpere, the feisty family patriarch originally essayed by the great David Wayne.  Still a frequently working stage actor, George S. Irving's voice hasn't lost any of its rich, commanding texture.  His sense of showmanship and comic timing remains impeccable.  Watching this veteran of over 50 Broadway shows (beginning with the original Oklahoma!) in action is reason enough to attend, especially for young musical theatre actors.

If Timothy Warmen seems to be having a rough go at it in the lead role of Jacques, much of the problem is that the book can use quite a bit of trimming in its current state.  He sings in a pleasant light baritone and delivers a committed, sensitive performance, but although the lighter moments are rather enjoyable, Nash's scenes involving Jacques' family conflicts are over-written and the romantic subplot involving the photographer's inability to commit to his hometown sweetheart (the lovely-voiced Sarah Solie), despite a good effort by the actors, comes off as perfunctory.

David Geinosky seems a good 6 or 7 years older than the 15-year-old Bibi, but he gives a fine sympathetic performance while trying to sing in a voice that sounds as if it's changing.

Along with the wonderfully catchy title tune, the score has at least one highly memorable ballad in "I Don't Remember You" and the lively vaudevillian trio "A Certain Girl" has Irving, Warmen and Geinosky merrily singing the praises of monogamy.

Despite revisions, The Happy Time still has its kinks, but this spirited production highlights the admirable qualities that make it worth a second (or first) look.

Photo of George S. Irving by Linda Lenzi

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From This Author Michael Dale