Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Worthy Revival at Signature Theatre

A few years before his death, lyricist Fred Ebb -- who would have been 75 years old this past Tuesday, April 8 -- wrote to artistic director Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre in Arlington. In what proved to be a prescient note, Ebb's letter of May 6, 1999, said:

Due to popular Washingtonian demand, I'm including a copy of my first great musical play entitled "The Happy Time." I hope you will spare some of your precious time to read it. After you have finished reading "Come Back Little Sheba" and "70, Girls 70" I would suggest an entire season based on the works of Kander & Ebb, which would end with the return engagement of "Over & Over" for which all of Shirlington is clamoring.
Affectionately signed "Poopsie," this letter suggested what has come to pass this spring at Signature: the Kander & Ebb Celebration, which includes major productions of the Broadway hit Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Broadway semi-flop The Happy Time, and the East Coast premiere of The Visit, based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, as well as various ancillary events. (It does not include a "return engagement of 'Over & Over," which was a musical based on Thornton Wilder's play, The Skin of Our Teeth. Watch this blog for an archival post of my review of that show, which Signature produced in 1999.)

The celebration has brought together some of the luminaries of the Broadway musical stage, as evidenced by this "class photo" taken to commemorate Signature's mini-season of Kander & Ebb works:

Sadly, Ebb himself did not live to see this tribute, having passed away on September 11, 2004, before his latest Broadway musical, Curtains, had been completed and opened -- and even winning a Tony Award.

The latest offering in the Kander & Ebb Celebration, The Happy Time, opened in Shirlington last weekend. Here is my review for The Metro Herald:
‘The Happy Time’ Lives Up to Its Title: Signature Produces a Sadly Neglected Musical
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

A shimmering new production of The Happy Time at Signature Theatre in Arlington proves conclusively that this neglected musical is undeserving of its neglect.

First mounted on Broadway in 1968, The Happy Time – with a score by the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by playwright N. Richard Nash – was badly misinterpreted by its director, Gower Champion, who turned an intimate family musical into a spectacular with dozens of happy villagers. Champion did this over the objections of Kander and Ebb who, despite their earlier success with Cabaret, were not yet KANDER & EBB and therefore lacked the clout to overrule the show’s director and its producer, impresario David Merrick.

The Happy Time also suffered from a poorly produced original cast recording, which left out not only some of the loveliest songs of the score – such as the non-love love duet reprise “I Don’t Remember You” – but also the songs that were substantively necessary to understand the show, like the 11 o’clock number, “Running,” and the parenting song “In His Own Good Time.”

The title song was a minor hit for star Robert Goulet, however, and with its lilting, merry-go-round sound left the (mis)impression that “The Happy Time” was all gauzy nostalgia – not exactly what audiences were looking for in the roiling latter years of the 1960s. The show closed after only 286 performances even after winning three Tony Awards and being nominated for seven others.

Consequently, for four decades, The Happy Time has had no Broadway revival and few significant regional productions – until now.

Under the direction of Michael Unger, Signature’s production of The Happy Time moves past all these 40-year-old mistakes and offers up a charming yet serious look at an upper-middle-class Quebec family in 1920.

The set-up is rather simple. Three generations of the Bonnard family live in one big house: widower Grandpere and his son Louis, his wife and three daughters; plus son Philippe, his wife, and son Bibi. A third middle-generation son, Jacques, is a globe-trotting photographer whose arrival back home puts the plot in motion.

Jacques is most delighted to be reunited with his godson, Bibi, a lad of twelve who feels repressed and out-of-place among his family, especially under the discipline of his father, a musical conductor in a burlesque house who – despite his profession – is the most staid and prudish of the Bonnard clan. (Bibi, of course, is no different from any other 12-year-old boy, but he doesn’t know that.)

To say this is a coming of age tale would be to express the obvious, except that it is not so much about Bibi’s coming-of-age as it is about Jacques’. The authors’ task would have been so much easier had they told the story from Bibi’s point of view but instead of this facile path they chose the more complex, layered perspective of Jacques, whose motivations are clouded and whose emotions, at just past 30 years of age, are equally as jumbled as his pre-teen counterpart’s.

Oddly enough, and unusual for a musical of this type and era, the women are more or less pushed off to the side. There are the wives of Louis and Philippe, and there is Laurie, a schoolteacher and war widow who is Jacques’ lost love; yet she seems to be little more than a foil for Jacques who can provide him with some of the impetus to claim his adulthood. Besides these three, you have Louis’ daughters, who do essentially nothing, and the “Four Angels,” strippers in Philippe’s burlesque show, who help provide the setting for Bibi’s sexual awakening.

The Happy Time is a story about male relationships: father and son, brother and brother, uncle and nephew, grandfather and grandson. Jacques wants little more in his life than a sign of approbation from his father, and in seeking independence for himself and for his nephew, he creates a rift between himself and his brother. How these situations resolve themselves is what makes the show go.

Michael Minarik, who plays Jacques, brings a voluble poignancy to the part. (The actor lost his own father within the past year.) At first detached and frivolous, Minarik builds his character arc incrementally, finally exploding with “Running,” a song that can best be described as a forerunner to “Being Alive” in Company, both thematically and musically.

As Jacques’ protégé, Bibi, Jace Casey (who is about to turn 13 in real life) handles a difficult role with poise and charm. The part of Bibi is written about a boy whose voice is still breaking, but the musical numbers assigned to him require a more mature, fully developed voice. Michael Rupert, who originated the role on Broadway, says in a program note that he was 15 when he played it (although his official biographies on IMDB and the Internet Broadway Database both agree he was 16 at the time), so he had to “play younger.” Casey is playing his own age, which is about the hardest thing to demand of an adolescent actor, and he does it well.

At the other end of the age scale, Grandpere (David Margulies) is all impish energy and twinkling eyes. Grandpere has already lived a long life and he has a carpe diem philosophy that extends through his relations with his sons, whom he criticizes for being too sober and serious when life is meant to be lived. (In this, Grandpere bears more than a passing resemblance to a later Kander & Ebb protagonist, Zorba.)

While the book underplays them, one cannot ignore Carrie A. Johnson’s Laurie and Tracy Lynn Olivera’s Suzanne (Philippe’s wife). As Laurie, Johnson helps to ground Jacques while as Suzanne, Olivera stands up to Philippe; both characters are mothers, and both understand the needs of adolescent boys better than the former adolescent boys do.

Director Unger has scaled down The Happy Time so that the book, music, and lyrics are the centerpiece. The set, such as it is, consists of little more than a few chairs, a curtain, and projected images on a screen hanging behind the stage. Just right, to the credit of scenic and production designer Todd Edward Ivins. The costumes, designed by Kathleen Geldard, are mostly in muted tones, with nothing to distract from the action or the words. So, too, Mark Lanks’ lighting design enhances the production without drawing attention to itself.

What may be the best touch is Unger’s choice about the music itself. With a trio for accompaniment (piano, bass, and drums, all under the musical direction of David Holcenberg) instead of a full orchestra, we can hear clearly what the actors are singing and – what’s more, to the pleasure of all – without amplification. It is so rare these days to hear an unmediated human voice in the musical theatre; the absence of body microphones is a welcome lacuna.

The Happy Time is itself a rare thing: a seldom-performed Broadway musical, a family-friendly story, a charmer with heft, a romantic and hummable score. Unless this production begets more revivals – as it should – run now to Signature Theatre to catch a performance before it slips away for another four decades.

The Happy Time is part of Signature Theatre’s Kander & Ebb Celebration, which also includes productions of Kiss of the Spider Woman (now playing in The Max) and the East Coast premiere of The Visit.

The Happy Time
continues in The Ark through June 1. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. For ticket information, call Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visit Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Avenue in the Shirlington section of Arlington; for more information, visit

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Photos, from top to bottom:

"Class Photo" -- From left to right, some of the Broadway luminaries in Signature Theatre's Kander & Ebb Celebration, March - May 2008. First row: Natascia Diaz, empty chair of the late Fred Ebb, Chita Rivera; Second row: David Margulies, John Kander;Third row: Terrence McNally, Eric Schaeffer, Will Chase, Michael Minarik, Hunter Foster, Mark Jacoby, George Hearn. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Michael Minarik as Jacques

Jace Casey as Bibi

David Margulies as Grandpere

(left to right) Amy McWilliams, Jace Casey, Kate Arnold (obstructed), Emily Levey, Lauren Williams, Michael Minarik, Carrie A. Johnson, Tracy Lynn Olivera, George Dvorsky and David Margulies in Kander & Ebb’s The Happy Time at Signature Theatre, April 1 – June 1.

All production photos of The Happy Time are credited to Stan Barouh.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Michael Rupert was 15 when the show began out in California and was 16 by the time the show reached Broadway.