Cute kids, baseball and the big-band era come together for comedy, romance and even a bit of tragedy in “Last Days of Summer,” a tuneful new musical having its world premiere at Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
Adapted by Steve Kluger from his best-selling 1998 novel and featuring Grammy winner Jason Howland’s period-specific score that could have been lifted from the Frank Sinatra/Tommy Dorsey playbook, this audience-pleaser is at heart a bromance between a fatherless boy and his idol, a major league third baseman.
Thirteen-year-old Brooklynite Joey Margolis (an impossibly personable Robbie Berson) has plenty on his mind. His father has left his mother (Lauren Braton) for a floozy, his relatives are trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe and Joey has to endure daily beatings from an anti-Semitic moron.
But Joey is a born con artist who mails daily letters to New York Giants star Charlie Banks, claiming to be suffering from numerous infirmities (consumption, blindness, scurvy) to gain the attention of his hero.
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Charlie (Corey Cott) is wise to his lying young fan. But he is pushed to respond by his fiancee, nightclub chanteuse Hazel MacKay (Emily Padgett). It’s all part of her effort to civilize her brawling beau, whose value as a power hitter is undermined by his tendency to get ejected for bad behavior.
Wouldn’t you know it? After a few rough early innings the baseball pro and his irrepressible correspondent become a sort of item, their bickering masking a growing affection. Once concerned only with gals and good times, Charlie — a nominal Lutheran — now finds himself volunteering to stand for Joey at the kid’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Along the way he and his fellow Giants become surprisingly well-versed in the Torah.
This relationship is only part of the script’s broad (sometimes too broad) reach.
The looming war plays a major role here. Charlie and teammate Stuke (Chris Dwan) enlist in the Marines and will fight on some bloody Pacific atoll.
Joey’s best friend, Craig Nakamura (Jim Kaplan), is a Japanese-American whose family’s shop is trashed by vigilantes and he is shipped off to an internment camp in the California desert.
In Charlie’s absence Joey practices his mentor’s advice, scheming to impress an older girl (Josephine Pellow) by pushing his way into Hazel’s nightclub act.
And we haven’t yet mentioned characters like Joey’s comically sarcastic aunt (Katie Karel) or the Margolis family’s sweetly exasperated rabbi (Gary Neal Johnson).
Truth is, there’s more going on here than one evening of musical theater can gracefully handle. The narrative focus of Act I becomes blurred in the show’s second half. There are just too many subplots. (I’d have preferred more stage time between boyhood buds Joey and Craig and less on Joey’s adolescent romantic efforts.)
The problem, of course, is what to cut. Kluger has given just about every character a musical number (there are 22 of them). For example, you’d hate to jettison the character of Stuke. That would mean killing the show-stopping “This Time It’s for Real,” in which Dwan channels Donald O’Connor for a comic dance routine.
Howland’s score is itself a character. The songs exude ‘40s authenticity, ranging in style from Hazel’s tango-y torch number “Where Did All the Heroes Go?” to fast-talking patter numbers for Joey (“Dear Mister Charlie Banks”) to the heartbreaking “You Never Have to Say Goodbye.”
A couple of numbers set in the Giants’ dugout are more than a little reminiscent of “Damn Yankees.”
Conductor/pianist Rick Hip-Flores leads a seven-man band that sounds like twice that number; these guys swing like Basie.
And at their best Kluger’s lyrics are deliciously witty. He won me over when Charlie explains his explosive temper in a lyric rhyming “pissed” with “fist.” Gotta be a Broadway first.
Director Jeff Calhoun, who helmed last fall’s Rep debut of the musical “Between the Lines,” imparts to the production a restless energy. There’s relatively little formal dancing (Calhoun is a renowned choreographer), but in a sense the whole enterprise has been staged like one big dance, with Jason Sherwood’s skeletal scenic elements flowing on and off the stage with cinematic ease.
Top acting honors go to Cott, a charismatic performer with superb comic timing and amazingly expressive body language. From the first moment we meet his tough-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside Charlie Banks we’re hooked. The guy practically has “star” emblazoned on his jersey.
The evening’s best voice belongs to Padgett, who seems born to the big-band style. Unfortunately her Hazel is rather bland; she could use some Damon Runyon attitude.
And as the boys, Bersen and Kaplan are shamelessly lovable scene-stealers.
How far can “Last of Summer” go? Well, there’s so much to like here that there surely will be more productions elsewhere accompanied by more refining. But once again Rep audiences are lucky to get in on the ground floor of adventurous musical theater.
“Last Days of Summer” continues at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre through Sept. 30. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.