Teddy Eck and Justin Packard in Take Me Along
(© Carol Rosegg)
Teddy Eck and Justin Packard in Take Me Along
(© Carol Rosegg)
Call me old-fashioned or tell me I'm refusing to acknowledge that the traditional mid-20th-century musical no longer has valid appeal in today's fast-moving, culturally fragmented world. I couldn't care less. The Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of the Robert Merrill-Joseph Stein-Robert Russell 1959 tuner Take Me Along -- based on Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and now best remembered as a vehicle for Jackie Gleason -- is as entertaining and lighthearted as any show should hope to be. Furthermore, I'll put up a spirited fight against anyone who tries to convince me I'm just a pushover for the portrait presented of an innocent small-town American past that may never have existed.

Okay, I'll admit I'm a sucker for nostalgia and sentiment. But thanks to Charlotte Moore's direction and Barry McNabb's attractively low-key choreography, the nostalgic and sentimental prodding of the production -- which has as cast of 11 (in contrast to the 44 in the original production) -- is as gentle as can be. It has no intention of knocking you over the head with unnecessary bravura. That's a large part of its appeal, as is ensemble-wide performing marked by the kind of charm that can't be purchased at acting schools.

The story -- which concerns the Miller family of Centerville, Connecticut -- takes place on the fourth and fifth of July in 1920. During those somewhat eventful days, Nat Miller (William Parry), wife Essie (Donna Bullock), and sons Art (Dewey Caddell), Richard (Teddy Eck), and Tommy (Noah Ruff) play host to Essie's imbibing brother Sid (Don Stephenson), who's shown up to renew his courtship of Nat's sister Lily (Beth Glover) and also to get back his old reporting post on editor Nat's newspaper.

During this narrow time-slot -- which covers about the same number of hours during which O'Neill unfolds the far more distraught Long Day's Journey Into Night -- Sid asks Lily to marry him but possibly ruins his chances by ignoring her request that he remain sober, while Richard runs into trouble with girlfriend Muriel McComber (Emily Skeggs) when her father Dave (Gordon Stanley) objects to the provocative books to which she's been introduced, like Oscar Wilde's Salome and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (from which the play's title is filched).

As these inch-high dramatic hurdles accumulate, Nat remains wise, Essie remains supportive, Art retains his Yale-educated self-satisfaction, and Tommy remains cute. Meanwhile, a couple of local hookers stir up playfulness when Richard is tempted to stray at the low-rent Pleasant Beach House he's frequenting with pal Wint (Justin Packard). Happily, he can't bring himself to cheat on Muriel with temptress Belle (Anastasia Barzee).

Throughout the proceedings, Merrill's songs pop up like spring flowers on a country lane. The catchiest one is the title tune, although some may claim the ditty called "If Jesus Don't Love Ya" as their favorite. ("If Jesus don't love ya, Jack Daniels will" is the amusing thought promoted.) The most beautiful number, "Promise Me a Rose," is given to Lily, and it could easily be entered into the "Best Ballad Ever Written for a Musical Sweepstakes." It's not surprising that with the great Gleason in the original cast as Sid, the score skews in his favor, with the character's introductory ditty "Sid, Ol' Kid" registering grandly.

When Take Me Along first opened, it was obviously designed to take advantage of the good will that The Music Man -- which also includes a Fourth of July celebration -- had recently spread around. Granted, the show isn't quite up to Meredith Willson's mark, but as infused with sarsaparilla bubbles here, it's still a delicious tonic. When you go, do me a favor: Take me along.