The George Street Playhouse opened its 45th season at the new state-of-the-art New Brunswick Performing Arts Center with “Last Days of Summer” — and just hit it out of the park.
The baseball-themed musical is near perfect in every way, starting with its plot based on a 1998 novel of the same name written by Steve Kluger (who wrote the book and lyrics for the show).
Young Joey Margolis (Julian Emile Lerner), his mother, Ida (Mylinda Hull), and his Aunt Carrie (Christine Pedi) are forced to move to an Italian neighborhood after his parents divorce. It’s 1940, and not a safe place for a young Jewish boy — or his Japanese best friend, Craig Nakamura (Parker Weathersbee) — who both are regularly beaten up by a young tough.
To make matters worse, his wealthy (and remarried) father essentially abandons him, even planning a trip abroad when young Joey is due for his bar mitzvah.
So, in search of an adult male role model, he starts writing letters to N.Y. Giants third baseman Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton). In a series of extremely funny and well written missives, he claims to have series of different fatal diseases that might be cured if only Banks would announce that he’s hitting a home run for Joey.
When Banks sees through the ruse, Joey plans a different approach. Famed columnist Walter Winchell has kept the country informed of the on-again off-again romance between Banks and cabaret singer Helen MacKay (Teal Wicks). So Joey starts to write her about his ailments, she believes him, and she arranges a meet.
Banks comes for a Shabbas meal, deals with gefilte fish, and eventually — with the rabbi’s permission — stands up for Joey at his bar mitzvah, after helping the youngster learn his Torah portion. In Hebrew.
But don’t confuse “Last Days of Summer” with a schmaltzy musical comedy. It is poignant and in the way it deals with subjects such as the racism of Japanese internment, gay rights, and most obviously, anti-Semitism, also extremely relevant in today’s world.
Special kudos to director Jeff Calhoun for his musical staging. Beowulf Boritt also deserves credit for his innovative set design (as well as surviving puberty with that first name).
Although no dialect coach is listed in the credits, congrats to whomever helped the actors with their Hebrew pronunciation. There wasn’t a single “hi-yim” in the show. It was all “chaims” — and anyone who can get non-Jews to make that guttural CH sound deserves a special award.
The actors are uniformly wonderful. But you expect that from Broadway vets such as Thornton (“Bronx Tale”) and Teal Wicks (“The Cher Show”). It was Joey/Lerner who brought down the house. I take it as a personal affront that this tiny pre-teen is so talented. It’s just unfair.
Which brings us to Kluger. About a week before the opening, I asked the playwright if he was Joey Margolis. “That’s an interesting question,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was my projection of what my father was like when he was a kid. But he looked at the first 40 pages just before he died and he said this isn’t me. This is you.”
Like Joey, Steve looked elsewhere for role models, and found them in a camp counselor and a fifth-grade teacher he would go to for advice.
Though he has no children of his own, Kluger is convinced he’d have been great father.
“I have many nieces and I’m a great uncle, so I know what kind of father I would have been,” he said. “Very protective and totally neurotic.”
“The Last Days of Summer” is at the George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center on Livingston Avenue in downtown New Brunswick from now through November 10. For more information or tickets, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org or call (732) 846-2895.