REVIEWS: The Happy Time

Musicals Tonight!
Reviewed by Howard Kissel

Saturday night I went to see a musical I have known since college but had never seen, Ernest in Love, which was being presented by Musicals Tonight, the institution run by Mel Miller that has been doing staged readings of rare musicals for 10 years. The spring season has been devoted to the extraordinary actor George S. Irving, who made his Broadway debut in 1943 in Oklahoma! but who, at 80-plus, is still bringing a youthful energy and a veteran's wisdom to our theater. (Full disclosure -- I have known him for many years and we have acted together in Project Shaw.)

George was supposed to have played Lady Bracknell in this musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest but Miller decided it might be too taxing. "I told him we wanted to salute him, not kill him," Miller said.

The cast was superb and the show itself, by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss, utterly delightful. The Saturday night performance at the McGinn-Cazale Theater, at 76th and Broadway, was sold out and there was a long line waiting for cancellations. At a certain point Miller offered a woman in the audience $20. Afterward I asked him to explain. She was a subscriber whose husband was ill. Since she had already paid for the seat she thought she could put her coat there. (the McGinn-Cazale is on the Upper West Side.) Miller thought it might be better occupied by a human being. Ultimately she agreed.

A few weeks earlier I attended the first staged reading in the series, a revival of Kander and Ebb's 1966 The Happy Time, in which George Irving had been in the original cast. So was the man sitting behind me, who was then a child. George had played a small part back then but this time he played the grandfather of a French Canadian family, a role for which he was perfect.

From the man behind me I learned a lot about the original Happy Time. It was produced by David Merrick and directed by Gower Champion, who, as usual, sniped at each other throughout.

The show had a tryout in Los Angeles and would begin previews in New York just after the holidays. Merrick gave the cast members train tickets for the trip East, which meant they would not have time to spend with their families during the holidays. Out of his own pocket Gower gave them each a plane ticket, sparing them a four day journey as well as giving them a chance to see their loved ones.

The star of the original production was Robert Goulet, whose "people" were not happy about having him play a failure. On top of that, Goulet was hideously in debt. Another set of "people" suggested -- forcibly -- that he could erase that debt by doing a gig in Las Vegas. And so, despite the fact he won a Tony in the role, Goulet left the show for Vegas, which cut short its Broadway run.

I doubt that Goulet could have been as affecting as Timothy Warmen, a splendid singing actor, in the role of the photographer who comes to see his life has been a failure.

The original production was intended as a Big Broadway Show, despite the fact that the material itself, with book by N. Richard Nash, is quite intimate. The photographs the main character took were projected on a huge screen every time he shot them. Projections were considered the wave of the future 40 years ago, but they can only have detracted from the story and the score.

Never before or afterward did Kander and Ebb write so forthrightly emotional a score. (The only thing quite comparable is the powerful song for which Kander wrote both lyrics and music in "Curtains" about a composer missing his lyricist -- Jason Daniely's heartbreaking singing of it is unforgettable.) Kander had apparently attended the beautifully directed version of The Happy Time a few nights before I did and was seen drying away tears. This version restores four songs cut in tryouts -- it was a wonderful reclamation of a very special show, which deserves a full production.

The Happy Time
TheatreScene.net - March 11, 2007
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

As part of a season-long tribute to musical comedy legend George S. Irving, Musicals Tonight! is presenting a fully costumed concert staging of the 1968 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, The Happy Time for which Robert Goulet won a Tony Award. Goulet played photographer Jacques Bonnard, the prodigal son returning to his family in St. Pierre, Quebec, in the 1920s. Back in 1968, Irving played his steady, conservative older brother Phillipe, father of his adolescent godson Bibi. Now 39 years later Irving plays Grandpere, the gruff but warm-hearted Bonnard patriarch. Lovingly and smoothly directed and choreographed by Thomas Mills with a keen eye for character, this first New York revival of The Happy Time proves to be a moving and bittersweet entertainment of an uneven but adventurous musical play.

Musicals Tonight!’s staging of The Happy Time is actually the New York premiere of the 1980 version that the creators revised for The Goodspeed Opera House revival which restored five songs cut from the original Broadway production. It also incorporates changes made for the 2002 revival at the Niagara University Theatre. The original material began as a book of reminiscences by Robert L. Fontaine about his childhood growing up in French Canada. In 1950 it became a hit Broadway comedy adapted by Samuel Taylor and starring Claude Dauphin, Richard Hart and Kurt Kasznar as the brothers Bonnard. The popular 1952 film version included Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan, and Kasznar recreating his role as the alcoholic brother Louis. The musical version was initiated by showman David Merrick and has a libretto by N. Richard Nash, most famous for The Rainmaker and its musicalization, 110 in the Shade, which uses characters from the original book but created an original story.

In this revised version, The Happy Time proves to be an unusual musical. It is narrated as a memory play in the style of The Glass Menagerie by a protagonist who is almost an anti-hero. International photographer Jacques Bonnard is a drifter and a womanizer and although he is charming and debonair, his irresponsibility causes great ambivalence in the St. Pierre family he rarely visits. Although the Kander melodies are melodic and catchy, some of Ebb’s lyrics are prosaic and earthbound. Ironically some of the loveliest songs in the show are among the restored numbers being heard in New York for the first time such as “Jeanne Marie,” a folk song-like number, and “In His Own Good Time,” a number for Bibi’s parents reviewing his progress.

However, the production’s great strength is that it creates a believable sense of community among the French Canadian family in the acting, writing and staging. The Happy Time is a coming of age story of both an adolescent boy and a thirty-five year old man who has never grown up. The title is almost ironic in that much of what is recollected is of the unhappiness caused by the carefree uncle on his more conventional family.

The play version was originally described as a “French Canadian cross between Life with Father and You Can’t Take It with You,’” and this is still true to a great extent. Jacques recalls his last visit to his family home in the small village of St. Pierre, Quebec, after yet another five years away. He is warmly but warily greeted as his relatives remember the trouble he caused on his previous visits. Happiest to see him is his 15-year-old nephew and godson Bibi, struggling with darkest adolescence and the strictures of his conservative father Philippe, Jacques’ older brother.

Reunited with his former girl friend, Laurie Mannon, who now is Bibi’s teacher, Jacques again refuses to settle down in the backwater of St. Pierre. Jacques’ meddling with Bibi’s upbringing causes things to finally come to a head in the Bonnard household before Grandpere steps in to resolve the current state of affairs with his greater wisdom. Despite some overly familiar plot devices, by the end, the show is deeply affecting and proves itself to be a strong character study.

Following in the role created by baritone Robert Goulet who can be heard on the original cast album, tenor Timothy Warmen’s voice isn’t as well suited to his musical numbers. However, his characterization of Jacques is helped by his own brand of arrogance and charisma. As his former girl friend who still carries a torch for him, Sarah Solie makes a beguiling heroine with a lovely soprano. Irving is delightful in the Maurice Chevalier-like role of the worldly widowed grandfather and he appears to be enjoying himself enormously with such songs as “The Life of the Party” and “A Certain Girl.”

David Geinosky is endearing as the confused Bibi who can’t wait to grow up and follow in his uncle’s footsteps. Mike Masters and Lauren Mufson make a strong contrast as Bibi’s parents: Philippe, loving yet authoritative; Suzanne, all-knowing and demonstrative. As the chorus girls in the Vaudeville Music Hall where Philippe conducts the orchestra, Lauren Ruff, Rachel Alexa Norman and Charly Seamon (who also triple as the Bonnard nieces and Bibi’s schoolmates) have a great deal of fun with the witty, “Angel’s Garters.”

The uneven Kander and Ebb score has its memorable songs such as the haunting “I Don’t Remember You,” “Among My Yesterdays,” and “St. Pierre,” which is sung in French. Some of the songs such as “He’s Back” and “Tomorrow Morning” are little one act plays by themselves in the style that Stephen Sondheim has made famous. The title song grows on you with each reprise. The Happy Time is not a great musical like the team’s Cabaret or Chicago, but Mills’ tightly directed and poignant production makes its case for it as a worthy addition to the Kander and Ebb canon and worthy of revival.

The Happy Time
NYTheatre.com - March 10, 2007
Reviewed by Lisa Ferber

This revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1968 musical The Happy Time is a refreshing treat. It is unapologetically sweet and nostalgic. The story involves wayward son Jacques (played by the talented Timothy Warmen), a photographer who can't stay in one place (or with one woman) too long, who revisits his family and affects the lives of everyone, especially his innocent nephew Bibi (played by a perfectly plucky David Geinosky).

Jacques likes taking photos, and he likes to introduce worshipfully naïve nephews to the pleasures of life...including showgirls. This ultimately leads to Bibi getting involved with some not-so-innocent types of photography. While the plot does center around this somewhat racy element, overall the production has a warm-hearted almost-bring-your-family feel to it; somehow it goes beyond just "kid taking dirty pix" and "wandering uncle who breaks hearts wherever he goes," and instead conveys a story of exploration, growing up, and moving beyond the confines of our parents' expectations.

The play is narrated by Jacques, who invites us in, saying he wants to photograph us. He introduces us to his quarreling but loving family, and takes us to the showgirls' dressing room, and to Bibi's school, where we meet the girl he left behind, Laurie, played by Sarah Solie. Jacques clearly loves Laurie, but he just can't settle down.

The script works without too many zingers — however there are a few, most of them delivered by Granpère, played by Broadway veteran George S. Irving. I love watching Irving perform; he somehow manages to be both commanding and adorable. The richness of his singing is that it is fully acted, not about showing off vocal acrobatics, but communicating the lines. Irving originally played brother Phillipe in the 1968 version, and Larry Daggett, who plays brother Louis, played the role of Bibi decades ago, making this production even more of a family event.

This performance is done as a concert-style reading with actors holding books in their hands, but they barely ever refer to them, and while sets are minimal, the staging of cast members is as though they were completely off book.

 The closing lines are so sweet as to be, dare I say, corny, but by this time the show has us so warmed up that we're willing to accept it.

This show is, if I may, a happy time.

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