by Ruth Ross
As its initial offering of the 2019-2020 season—and the inaugural production at the new state-of-the-art New Brunswick Performing Arts Center—you might say that George Street Playhouse has hit a grand slam. Based on an acclaimed novel by the same name, Last Days of Summer is a coming-of-age story, a tale about baseball, featuring a wise-guy kid and his wiser sidekick—sure-fire ingredients that never fail to please audiences.
In this new musical, Joe Margolis and his young son Chuckie open an old box of letters and baseball memorabilia that transport Joe back to his youth in Brooklyn and the summer of 1942, when Joey and his best friend Craig write letters to their hero, Charlie Banks, the star third baseman of the New York Giants. Amid the tumultuous events of World War II, Joey and Charlie forge an unlikely friendship that may be the very thing they both need.
With a new score of Big-Band sounds and jazz music of the era composed by Jason Howland and lyrics and book written by Steve Kluger, the author of the novel on which the play is based, Last Days of Summer features sixteen very talented actors in a bittersweet, poignant, yet uplifting look at the past. Helmed by director Tony Award-nominee Jeff Calhoun, the show has a bright, shiny look and feel about it; the lyrics are more literate than corny, the intelligent score reminiscent of the era with motifs that appear and reappear throughout the proceedings.
At the center of the tale are young Joey Margolis (Julian Emile Lerner) and Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton, top image), who have more in common than one might think. Lerner is perfect as a wise-guy scamp, writing letters touting his disease of the week in an effort to get his idol to hit a home run on the radio for him. He sings, he dances, he’ll steal your heart with an accomplished performance. The equally fine Thornton doesn’t let the kid overshadow him, whether they’re duetting (“That’ll Be You and Me”) or he’s opening his heart revealing that “You Never Have to Say Goodbye,” referring to his own losses. He really takes the fatherless child under his wing, even standing up for him at his Bar Mitzvah. And listening to him recite Hebrew is a stitch, but shows how far he’ll go for his young fan.
Rounding out the core are Teal Wicks (left) as Charlie’s fiancée Hazel MacKay and Will Burton as his teammate Stuke. Wicks is a 40s chanteuse to the bone, with her sinuous body, red hair and magnificent voice. Just listening to her sing “Don’t Believe in Romance” will make you think of one of those Big Band singers so prevalent in 1940s flicks. Her spunky behavior is just the thing Charlie needs to keep him in line, while her maternal instincts allow her to love Joey as much as Charlie does. Burton’s agility and terrific stage presence, not to mention his beautiful voice, offer comic relief as he bonds with Joey in “You’ve Gotta Be Real.” He too is a delight to watch!
Other standouts include Parker Weathersbee as Joey’s serious, wise friend Craig Nakamura (above, right, with Lerner) and Jeslyn Zubrycki as Rachel Panitz, the “older” girl Joey pines for. Weathersbee is a perfect foil for Lerner; the two kids consider themselves to be alike. He’s especially touching when he recalls his father’s love for a garden in a letter he writes Joey from Manzanar where the family has been interned. And Zubrycki is appropriately surprised to find out that the kid who’s been pestering her has changed (“Not Like You at All”).
Christine Pedi and Mylinda Hull as Aunt Carrie and Ida Margolis, respectively, are also wonderful as the two Jewish women who hold down the family after Mr. Margolis has abandoned them. And Danny Binstock is also terrific as the adult Joe, watching the proceedings from the side of the stage and occasionally joining the action and two musical numbers; he too has a great voice.
Award-winner Beowulf Boritt has designed a set comprised of stacked packing boxes upon which the actors stand and jump; benches and lockers appear and disappear, even a train engine peeks out from one side of the stage! Loren Shaw has designed costumes reminiscent to 1940’s fashion; Ken Billington’s lighting is appropriate and atmospheric; and Brian Ronan’s sound enhances the production. I did, however, find the opening number excessively loud so I was unable to hear the lyrics over the music. As the play progressed, the orchestra, directed by Lon Hoyt, reduced its volume so the individual characters (especially the kids) could be heard.
Called an “audience-pleaser” by the Kansas City Star and “heartfelt…an delightfully scored” by BroadwayWorld during its 2018 premiere run at Kansas City Repertory Theater, Last Days of Summer is a worthy opening for both the venerable George Street Playhouse and the brand-new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. In the vein of two recent musicals, Newsies, A Bronx Tale and Dance Band, Last Days of Summer are a delightful addition to the musical theater genre. I was so taken by the story that I went out and bought the book! It’s a must-see for theater-goers of all ages.
Last Days of Summer will be performed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick through November 10th. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.georgestplayhouse.org online.