- The Happy Time
Story & Book by N. Richard Nash, based on the play by Samuel Taylor
Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Signature Theatre’s The Happy Time is a splendidly cast and well-crafted production of a fair-to-middling musical. This show was my introduction to Signature’s Ark performance space, a superb environment for intimate works, both new and forgotten, much like Signature’s former digs on Four Mile Run Road. The Happy Time falls solidly into the forgotten category. In this capacity, the Ark serves as an “institutional memory” for American musical theatre, an exceedingly important role, and Signature’s benefactors are to be commended for providing the vital infrastructure for bringing shows like this to the public. Signature’s resurrection of this show, as with its earlier staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro, graces theatre aficionados and the general public with a fully-realized production of an obscure musical.
The dynamo team, Kander and Ebb, were on a Cabaret high when they turned to their next production. It’s uncanny that their work progresses from Isherwood’s I Am a Camera (source material for Cabaret) to Taylor’s script centered on real life photographer Jacques.
In terms of overall atmosphere or ethos, I’d liken the show most closely to James Joyce’s The Dead, which is also about family and loss, mixed with humor and period music. Another musical that is likely to end up back-burnered in time. At the heart of the show are the triad of relationships among family patriarch Grandpere, son Jacques, and grandson/nephew Bibi. David Margulies as Grandpere hands down steals the show with a character which embodies wisdom and compassion and life itself (think Zorba or Tevya). Margulies’ performance is a 10 on a scale of 1 to 5. Whether climbing in a second-story windows, sneaking into a Burlesque house, arranging his 500th birthday celebration, or having heart-to-heart confrontations with his family, Grandpere strongly resonates with the audience. His three sons are a mixed bag: dipsomaniac father (Rob McQuay) of three daughters and husband to irascible Felice (Amy McWilliams); industrious and authoritarian father (George Dvorsky) of Bibi (Jace Casey) and husband to wise and long-suffering wife Suzanne (Tracy Lynn Olivera); and prodigal son, Jacques, itinerant photographer and sometime hero and sometime anti-hero (Michael Minarik).
Minarik (as Jacques) is a would-be “Uncle Mame” to Bibi, only Jacques is brooding and self-conflicted and insecure in a way that would be alien to Mame Dennis. His letters home to family and friends have chronicled a series of fictitious accomplishments and awards. Ultimately, he feels unsuccessful and lonesome and homesick. He thinks his coming home as a supposed world-traveled photographer will recharge his batteries. When he still feels hollow, he toys with settling down and marrying hometown sweetheart, Laurie (Carrie A. Johnson), a now widowed mother, or recruiting his nephew to follow him as cheerleader-in-residence to his lackluster career. Minarik’s acting is compelling and his singing is deep and rich and mesmerizing.
As Felice (Bibi’s aunt and Jacques’ sister-in-law), Amy McWilliams is a strong second to Margulies in hefting the evening’s comedy. She has a gift for portraying strong, centered women who have a vulnerable side. Dvorsky (Philippe) and Olivera (Suzanne) execute a well-honed tango as parents of Bibi, with Suzanne strategically revealing Philippe’s humanity. Nevertheless, Philippe is a character written too stridently and/or ambiguously, ranging almost at random between “good guy” and “bad guy”. Sometimes his reactions in a specific scene are startlingly contrary to expectation.
There are a number of young actors in this production and they are commendable. Most especially, Jace Casey carries a substantial load of the show as Bibi. His acting is uniformly strong, more so than his singing. His major solo, “Please Stay,” appears simple but is a complex, emotionally-rich art song. His understanding and interpretation of the song’s depth will likely grow as the show’s run continues. With further coaching in both dramatic and musical moments, Casey is very likely to mature into the role and into a fine adult actor.
While The Happy Time has some joyous moments of mirth, I found it a fairly melancholy work overall. The sadness at its core as well as the early 20th Century setting (which occasions some less-interesting period musical numbers such as the song “St. Pierre”) may be off-putting to prospective producers. Also, it requires quite a large cast – 17 actors in this Signature production – to do justice to the work, which further limits theatre companies’ interest in the show. So, The Happy Time joins the ranks of such shows as Dear World and Anyone Can Whistle in the race for obscurity. But with a Broadway run of nearly three hundred performances and 10 Tony Award nominations (with wins for best actor Robert Goulet and choreographer Gower Champion), it is clear the show can find an appreciative audience. Interestingly, the other 1968 Broadway season musicals also are seldom produced nowadays: Darling of the Day; The Grand Music Hall of Israel; Golden Rainbow, Hallelujah, Baby!; Henry, Sweet Henry; How Now, Dow Jones; and Illya Darling, although Hallelujah, Baby! and How Now, Dow Jones are relatively well-known among musical theatre buffs.
Sometimes a new director can lift a supposedly failed or weak show up to glory. Sometimes the mere passage of time can illuminate the “hidden” genius of a show. Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss and a miss is still a miss.
Running Time: 2:30
When: Thru June 1 Tuesday & Wednesday at 7:30 PM, Thursday & Friday at 8:00 PM, Saturday at 2:00PM & 8:00PM
Sunday at 2:00 PM & 7:00 PM
Where: Signature Theatre’s Arc Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA
Tickets: $29.50 – $34.
Info: Call 703 820-9771 or order online.