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Kate Jennings Grant and Ryan Driscoll
in Summer of ?42
(Photo: Kevin Byrne)
Much of Summer of '42 takes place on the beach, which may explain why it seems so waterlogged. The new musical is an adaptation of the 1971 movie of the same title, which Herman Raucher reworked from his own apparently autobiographical novel -- so autobiographical, in fact, that he gave its protagonist his own name. The adolescent hero is called Hermie and experiences his sexual initiation during a wartime summer he spends on an east coast island that's not identified but is probably off the coast of Maine. While there, he loafs around with two awkward pals, dates a teenage girl who is also uncomfortable in her skin, and -- most significantly -- loses his pounding heart to a war bride who is whiling away the season in a shack by the dunes.

The film, released 30 years ago, was imbued by director Robert Mulligan with the dreamy charm he'd mastered in movies about young people trying to find their footing in a puzzling world. Summer of '42 was hardly a landmark celluloid event, but it nevertheless caught moviegoers' interest and, for a couple of months, even made a star of the model Jennifer O'Neill. She was Dorothy, the pretty, young wife whose husband goes off to battle never to return, thereby priming her -- when the moment presents itself -- to seek solace with a callow, vacationing lad.

Whatever merits the movie could boast are almost entirely missing from the version that Hunter Foster (book) and David Kirshenbaum (music and lyrics) have come up with. Perhaps Mulligan's treatment could claim no more substance than this one, but the tale of a boy's gaining maturity through a brief encounter with a grieving widow is unquestionably pallid this time through. Hermie (Ryan Driscoll) and chums Oscy (Brett Tabisel) and Benjie (Jason Marcus), though meant to be typical of kids whose hormones are throwing a coming-out party, are just tiresome, geeky fugitives from any number of Happy Days-like sitcoms. Their nicknames alone are enough to trigger cluster headaches. And Dorothy (Kate Jennings Grant) is a smiling but remote figure about whom nothing very deep is revealed. Who is Dorothy, what is she, that all our clumsy swains commend her? She's a nice girl who seems to have no family or friends; nor, for unexplained reasons, does she seem to want any. Dorothy prefers to stare longingly at the ocean, somewhere on the other side of which her husband is carrying a rifle.

To pass time while the audience is waiting for the inevitable seduction to take place, Foster and Kirshenbaum have beefed up the youngsters' roles by handing them songs about growing pains. A number in which a young man buys condoms for the first time is an inspired idea but, as executed here, it gets bogged down in Hermie's blathering evasively about ordering an ice cream cone with sprinkles. Nor can much be said about the ditty in which the three wide-eyed boys study a sex manual. This one does, however, include possibly the only (and definitely the coyest) reference to cunnilingus ever put into a musical comedy score.

To his credit, Kirshenbaum has a way with a melody; but, when it comes to lyrics, he exhibits little facility for felicity. There are a couple of pleasing-as-they-pass love songs, among them duet for Dorothy and Hermie called "Someone to Dance With Me" that doesn't, however, make a great deal of sense in the situation. From time to time, Foster and Kirshenbaum bring out a girl trio (Celia Keenan Bolger, Erin Webley and Megan Valerie Walker). Mostly they play the puppy-love interests of the three boys but they also function as Andrews Sisters substitutes in a few '40s-style songs. These numbers fall so far short of the gaiety and bounce of the songs of that period that they're practically self-mocking.

Ryan Driscoll, Brett Tabisel, and Jason Marcus
in Summer of ?42
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Possibly the most intriguing aspect of this Summer of '42 is that it arrives only a few months after Richard Nelson's Madame Melville, a play in which another boy teetering on manhood is led across the threshold by an older woman during a particularly raw period of her emotional life. The Nelson work, of course, followed Raucher's piece, and both trail Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy. What's implied is that there is a large contingent of sensitive dramatists out there who, in eventually writing about what they know, happen to know the same thing: older women find younger men exceptionally easy marks. Maybe a moratorium is in order on this particular sub-genre of the memory play.

The physical production of Summer of '42, designed by James Youmans as if from a Jamie Wyeth landscape, doesn't promote much summer cheer; it looks as if it had its colors bleached out by the sun. But with its rolling beach and high grass and slat fences, there is a certain atmosphere. Pamela Scofield's costumes look right for the period, though it wasn't terribly bright to have Dorothy repeatedly cross the sand in high heels. (Heels sink into sand, kids.) Tim Hunter's lighting is okay and sound designer Jim van Bergen previews each of the two acts with the soothing sound of waves washing up on the shore. It's a kind of natural beauty that the rest of the show lacks.

Ryan Driscoll sure is earnest as Hermie, and Kate Jennings Grant gives Dorothy the right amount of sweet distance that the part insufficiently calls for. Brett Tabisel as a character a few years older than the one he played in Big and Jason Marcus as a bird-watching nerd overdo the teenage wackiness. As the potential girlfriends, Celia Keenan Bolger, Megan Valerie Walker, and the buxom Erin Webley rise to the occasion, but as the Andrews Sisters sound-alikes they seem only to have a vague idea of what style they're meant to be parodying. Greg Stone, as Dorothy's soldier boy, acquits himself well in a brief scene. Bill Kux plays the drugstore owner with a down-east accent and a Dagwood Bumstead hairdo; he also turns up every so often as the rat-a-tatting columnist Walter Winchell to read news copy intended to remind the audience that there was a war going on at the time.

Gabriel Barre directed and choreographed the show (with dance assistance from Jennifer Cody), and he has underplayed this one in direct proportion to his overplay of the Manhattan Theater Club's Wild Party. Summer of '42 is set at just about the same time as South Pacific. Perhaps comparisons are odious but, insofar as the two musicals are wartime romances, they mean to plumb some of the same feelings. The 1949 Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein-Joshua Logan blockbuster is set, of course, in the Pacific, and Summer of '42 on the Atlantic; but whereas the R&H classic is heart-stopping, never before has the Atlantic seemed so pacific as in this Summer of '42.

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