- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

Broadway songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb are venerated for the hard-bitten, black-patent-leather gloss of their shows — think gartered Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” the gat-toting tootsies of “Chicago” or the glittering and dark menace of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Apparently, they also could be sappy, and you can see that side through Signature Theatre’s winsome chamber-musical revival of the seldom seen 1968 show “The Happy Time.”

Directed by Michael Unger, this revision brings back four numbers snipped from the original Broadway production, a Tony winner for star Robert Goulet and director-choreographer Gower Champion.

As Broadway apocrypha relates, Mr. Champion, in cahoots with producer David Merrick, insisted on a happy ending as well as over-the-top showstoppers. The show also has gone down in history as the first to lose $1 million.

Hard to believe that bombast when you take in Signature’s demurely beguiling production, which features a more rueful resolution and what is essentially an evening of theatrical songs finely detailing the ties that bind us to home — and tie us down.

The show’s hero, Jacques (Michael Minarik), is an international photojournalist and jaunty celebrant of wine, women and song. When he returns home to the French-Canadian hamlet of St. Pierre, his worldliness pie-eyes his nephew, Bibi (Jace Casey).

Bibi’s infatuation with his uncle infuriates his diligent father, Phillipe (George Dvorsky), and Jacques’ boulevardier ways wreak all sorts of havoc in the household and in the heart of the woman he left behind, the schoolmarm Laurie (Carrie A. Johnson).

A cast of 17 expertly maneuver the small Ark Theatre stage, wisely kept minimal with a backdrop mosaic of tintype photos and striking black-and-white images conveying changes of scene and deepening mood.

“The Happy Time” is about nostalgia and smudged memory, and the score is appropriately Old World and sentimental — the strains of the carousel detected in the waltz rhythms of the catchy title tune, the whoops-a-daisy naughtiness of “Catch My Garter” (a can-can performed with backwoods zest by Kate Arnold, Emily Levey, Lauren Williams and Rachel Zampelli) and the bittersweet tinge of “I Don’t Remember You.”

The longing of “Please Stay” is expressed with boyish fervor first by Bibi (the excellent young Mr. Casey) and then later with exquisite, measured ardor by Miss Johnson and Mr. Minarik — one of the few times the actor drops his reserve and goes for the gut.

The real scene stealer, however, is David Marguilies as Grandpere, a crafty, Rabelaisian rabble-rouser who has never had the luxury of an unexpressed thought.

The introspection of “The Happy Time” gets a bit thick and burdensome in the second act, and the show does not so much end as trail off into space. For the most part, though, it chugs along pleasantly, and its comely charms are to be savored and not dismissed.

***

WHAT: “The Happy Time,” music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 1.

TICKETS: $45 to $69

PHONE: 703/573-7328

WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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