Signature Theatre’s illustrious Kander & Ebb Celebration might end up being most remembered for reviving The Happy Time — since 40 years after failing on Broadway, this rarely staged show (with a book by N. Richard Nash) may finally be able to claim its rightful place in the duo’s rich legacy. Like a lost family photograph that is re-discovered while rummaging through an old trunk, the show generates quietly powerful sentiment with the fleeting moment it captures. Director Michael Unger, aided by composer John Kander, has stripped away the Broadway trappings to reveal a quaint but emotionally intense chamber musical.
Their effort is aided by the stunning performance of Michael Minarik in the lead role of Jacques, a “world-renowned photographer” who returns to his French Canadian family in 1928. Minarik’s Jacques is a rake, but without slickness or guile. He may act like he’s just breezing in for a visit, but the burning intensity in Minarik’s eyes tell a different story. While trying to help his troubled young nephew Bibi (the affecting Jace Casey) realize there is a world beyond his extended family in a provincial village, Jacques — who uses the camera lens as a barrier between himself and the real world — finally comes to grips with his own life.
The story is not highly dramatic and the themes are subtle. But that is precisely what makes the story so emotionally accessible. Minarik underplays the big moments, drawing the audience closer to him as he gently sings. He slowly dissolves Jacques’ façade until the man’s emotional core is revealed in the searing second act, where Kander has revived “Running,” a song cut from the show before the Broadway opening. Minarik’s tearful rendition produced sobs from audience members in the show’s opening performance.
Performing in the intimate setting of Signature’s 120-seat ARK black box, Minarik and the other 16 cast members — including David Margulies as Jacques’ irrepressible father and George Dvorsky as Bibi’s father, Philippe — are able to gently explore the subtle tensions in father-son relationships, the childhood pain of not fitting in with the crowd, and the family dynamics that can both reward and frustrate. Todd Edward Ivins’ minimalist thrust-stage set adeptly utilizes photographic projections to enhance the themes, and he cleverly flashes real photos as Jacques “takes” them onstage.
The orchestra has been pared down to piano, bass and drums, which serves the pair’s eclectic score (which includes four previously cut songs). It ranges from the waltzy lightness of the title tune (performed three times) to the unusually staccato rhythms of He’s Back” and the music-hall fun of “Catch My Garter.” There are several ballads, including the poignant “I Don’t Remember You,” which is sung twice: once by Minarik, and then by Minarik with Carrie A. Johnson, who combines grace with toughness as Laurie, the hometown girl he left behind.
Marguilies, ever the old pro, provokes the happiest audience reaction with “A Certain Girl,” an old-fashioned uptempo number he charmingly croaks out, backed by Minarik and Casey. Several songs, notably “Without Me,” sung by Bibi and his schoolyard mates, do seem dated musically, but still retain a sense of fun.
Indeed, The Happy Time reminds us all over again why we will always love John Kander and Fred Ebb.