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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Last Days of Summer
Hey, Charlie, you gotta hand the Margolis kid an RBI for moxie. You haven't gotten this many letters since the All-Star game. — Stuke
: Bobby Conte Thornton and Teal Wicks photo credit: T. Charles Erickson
Jewish fathers and sons, anti-Semitism, the New York Giants, romance and bromance are all part of growing up in1940 Brooklyn. A mixture that is heart-felt and gainfully processed through the entertaining new musical Last Days of Summer . This is the George Street Playhouse’s (celebrating its 45th year) inaugural show within the recently opened state-of-the-art New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. In the larger (465 seats) of the two (the other seating 253), this ambitiously produced musical based on the 1998 novel by Steve Kluger boasts a book and lyrics by the author with music composed by Jason Howland.

Nostalgia with a purpose is as welcomed as it is obligatory in a new musical that is full of nice surprises. Kluger’s book is commendably grounded within a maze of a plot. The author’s punchy lyrics add considerably to Howland’s serviceable score. All told, they collaboratively reflect the mood and tenor of the times as they define the show’s primary characters in flashbacks from the present day.

Sports-writer Joe Margoles (Danny Binstock) finds himself in the attic of his Brooklyn home where his son Chucky (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) has unearthed some very personal and unsettling mementos. Flashback to 1940 and the now 12 year-old Joey (Julian Emile Lerner) is on the streets of Brooklyn where he and his best friend/Japanese American Craig Nakamura (Parker Westhersbee) are both regularly punched and called names by Gordon (Sabatino Cruz), the neighborhood racist/anti-Semitic bully.

If that isn’t hard enough to endure, Joey feels abandoned by his father who has run off and left him to be in the care of his Aunt Carrie (Christine Pedi) and her sister Joey’s mother Ida (Mylinda Hull) both of whom are doing what they can in the light of preparing for Joey’s up-coming Bar Mitzvah. Not above conning his way to get what he wants, Joey has been writing fan letters to his idol New York Giants third baseman Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton) claiming Joey is suffering from a variety of illnesses.

Relentlessly bombarded with Joey’s letters, Charlie quickly sees into Joey’s con game for attention and affection. It also becomes clear that Charlie has anger issues and is not able to keep his fists from settling arguments with his team mates. Charlie’s volatile behavior is most affecting his relationship with his fiancé Hazel (Teal Wicks), a nightclub singer who is quick to become Joey’s advocate and as a way to break through Charlie’s belligerent behavior.

This is the basis for an unlikely friendship between an immature and needy adult and a wise child on the brink of adulthood. Under the expert direction of Jeff Calhoun, the musical moves with brio and brawn as Charlie takes Joey under his wing and on the road with the team during summer break. A bit of a stretch in credibility is having Charlie (a Lutheran) and the team help Joey learn his Haftorah in Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah. Charlie’s awkward visit to Joey’s home for Sabbath dinner invites the expected laughs even as it gets the frowns from the visiting Rabbi (Don Stephenson). Charlie wins them over by volunteering instead of Joey’s absent father to stand up for him at his Bar Mitzvah.

The most winning aspect of the musical is how smartly and without any added schmaltz (chicken fat) the relationship between Charlie and Joey matures. Joey’s growing up includes his sweet romantic pursuit of the comically reluctant teenager Rachel (Jeslyn Zubrycki). Charlie’s Hazel gets her time in the spotlight singing a lovely ballad - “Don’t Believe in Romance” - in a nightclub. Later Hazel teams up with Joey in a close to show-stopping song and dance at an Irish Grille.

Will Burton is terrific as team player Stuke who idolizes glamorous movie stars. He knocks it out of the part with a hilarious song and dance - “You’ve Got To Be Real” - that unequivocally bares his latent sexual proclivities. Calhoun’s staging is confident and rousing throughout and most notably includes some cleverly executed choreography for the males that will undoubtedly bring back memories of Damn Yankees.

Events develop on a more serious note in Act II as War is declared and Charlie and members of the team enlist in the Marines. The plot does not avoid a vividly depicted scene on a beachhead. The plot also does not avoid the loss that Joey feels when his best friend Craig and family are uprooted from the neighborhood and sent to an internment camp for Japanese in California. The scene in which Joey and Charlie visit the camp in an attempt to free Craig is sad. Weatherbee’s beautifully sung “He Always Had a Garden” poignantly reflects a shameful part of our history.

As the conflicted Charlie, Thornton sings beautifully and delivers a sensitive performance that never compromises the character’s masculinity. He is certainly matched in his professional polish by the young Lerner. If there is the need to mention a standout performance it is that by the habitually scene-stealing Lerner, as Joey. I suspect he is happily delivering more than the creative team had a right to expect.

Set designer Beowulf Boritt makes full use of the stage and its capabilities as various locations fluidly appear from what initially is an attic filled with boxes and crates. Costume designer Loren Shaw fulfills her assignment to reflect the here and the then with flair. We are not surprised that lighting designer Ken Billington is a master of his art. A real treat is having eight musicians in the orchestra pit sending out the sound of a big band.

The bases are loaded and we are ready for a home run in this new musical that does not attempt to avoid the sad and the tragic even as it impressively proceeds to its goal to be ultimately life-affirming.

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Last Days of Summer
Book & Lyrics: Steve Kluger
Music: Jason Howland
Based on the novel by Steve Kluger
Direction & Musical Staging: Jeff Calhoun
Cast: Danny Binstock (Joe Margolis), Will Burton (Stuke), Bobby Conte Thornton (Charlie Banks), Sabatino Cruz (Gordon Bierman), Mylinda Hull (Ida Margolis), Julian Emile Lerner (Joey Margolis), Junior Mendez (Ensemble), Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (Chucky Margolis), Christine Pedi (Aunt Carrie), Julio Rey (Ensemble), Peter Saide (Ensemble), Don Stephenson (Rabbi Lieberman), Sean Watkinson (Ensemble), Parker Weathersbee (Craig Nakamura), Teal Wicks (Hazel MacKay), Jeslyn Zubrycki (Rachel Panitz)
Set Design: Beowulf Boritt Costume Design: Loren Shaw
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Design: Brian Ronan
Hair and Wig and Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet
Production Manager: Christopher J. Bailey
Production Stage Manager: Bess Marie Glorioso
Orchestrations: Kim Scharnberg
Musical Supervision and Arrangements: Jason Howland
Music Direction by Lon Hoyt
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J.
For tickets:
From 10/15/19 Opened 10/25/19 Ends 11/10/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/25/19 NJ CONNECTIONS
NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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