George Street Playhouse begins new era with ‘Last Days of Summer’

Last Days of Summer review

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Bobby Conte Thornton, left front, and Julian Emile Lerner, right front, co-star in “Last Days of Summer,” also featuring, from left, Will Burton, Junior Mendez, Sean Watkinson, Peter Saide, Julio Rey and Don Stephenson.

The George Street Playhouse’s current production represents a double premiere. The musical “Last Days of Summer” marks the start of the organization’s new era at the newly built New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, and is also making its New Jersey premiere after debuting in Kansas City, Mo., last year.

The Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater (the larger of NBPAC’s two theaters) is as beautiful and comfortable a space as one could have hoped for, and director Jeff Calhoun has assembled a fine cast and put together a smooth-running, smartly paced production. Composer Jason Howland’s melodies were catchy enough to sustain interest on a musical level. I’m also glad that the George Street Playhouse chose to launch its inaugural NBPAC season by taking a chance on a new musical instead of mounting a more reliable crowd-pleaser.

Teal Wicks in “Last Days of Summer.”

But I felt the baseball-themed story itself (the book and lyrics are by Steve Kluger, who adapted them from his 1998 novel of the same name) was more of a double than the yearned-for home run.

A framing device (not used in the Kansas City production) connects the story to the present, though most of it is set in 1940s Brooklyn. Joey (Julian Emile Lerner) writes letters to star New York Giants ballplayer Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton), claiming various false ailments, ranging from consumption to blindness, in order to get Banks’ sympathy. He’s being bullied in his own neighborhood and is in desperate need of a father figure, with his own father having abandoned him and his mother, Ida (Mylinda Hull).

Banks sees right through the lies and has problems of his own — he keeps getting thrown out of games for fighting — but befriends the kid anyway, with encouragement from his girlfriend, glamorous chanteuse Hazel MacKay (Teal Wicks).

Hazel pressures Charlie to stop fighting, and Charlie and his teammates become a type of surrogate family for Joey. They help him study for his bar mitzvah in the dugout and give him advice about girls: He’s in love with snooty Rachel (Jeslyn Zubrycki) but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him because he’s, at five months younger than her, way too much of a younger man.

The mood shifts from light comedy to heavy drama when Charlie explains why he has a chip on his shoulder (he has had a horrific family incident in his past), Joey’s Asian-American best friend Craig (Parker Weathersbee) gets sent away to an internment camp, and Charlie and his fellow Giant Stuke (Will Burton) go off to war. The storyline about Charlie trying to stop fighting is simply dropped, since he’s not playing baseball anymore. And to keep Joey involved in his friends’ lives, Kluger has his 12-year-old protagonist travel around the country — on his own, at will — to visit the ballplayers in their military training camp, and Craig while he’s being interned.

Parker Weathersbee, left, and Julian Emile Lerner in “Last Days of Summer.”

Joey, who really gets around an awful lot for a preteen, also hangs out with Hazel in a nightclub, and sings a killer duet with her. (For such a young actor, Lerner shows immense skill, already, as a singer and dancer; he’s definitely someone for theater fans to keep an eye on.)

There are elements of both harsh reality and absolute fantasy in “Last Days of Summer,” and it would take a far more skillful writer than Kluger to pull that off. His biggest mistake, I think, is making Joey such an unlikeable person: An overbearing liar with ungrounded confidence in himself. Joey softens up a bit as the musical proceeds, but still, it’s very hard to warm up to him.

I also didn’t like the way Kluger and Calhoun made Ida and Joey’s Aunt Carrie (Christine Pedi) so nasally whiny and obnoxious — such stereotypical Jews, in other words.

Still, I have to add that I was, ultimately, moved by the musical’s heart-tugging ending: “Last Days of Summer” did, eventually, get to a place where I was able to forgive its flaws.

The George Street Playhouse presents “Last Days of Summer” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Nov. 10. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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