Charlotte Moore’s stripped-down staging of “Take Me Along” reveals layers of heartfelt sentiment not normally evident in the 50-year-old Bob Merrill tuner based on Eugene O’Neill’s nostalgic comedy of boyhood, “Ah, Wilderness!” The result is a charmer of a production at the Irish Rep, a more-than-worthy follow-up to the company’s crowd-pleasing “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
While the O’Neill play provided the source material, the original David Merrick production couldn’t resist the temptation of building the show around a suddenly available box office behemoth: Jackie Gleason, following the termination of “The Honeymooners.” Thus, the secondary role of the ne’er-do-well alcoholic Uncle Sid became the show’s driving force.
The 1959 edition was one of those not-especially-good musicals that managed a reasonable but unprofitable run, buoyed by publicity from backstage battles that made front-page news. (This was the one where golf-crazy Gleason, for extra inspiration on the links, had Merrick’s face imprinted on golf balls.)
Others have played the role over the years, including a stock stint by Gene Kelly, but the inherent problem remained: The material is written in such a manner that the show deflates when the star putters off to his dressing room. The poorly timed 1985 Broadway revival shuttered on opening night.
Director Moore, who has a good deal of experience with O’Neill’s non-musicals, has seen fit to tone down the Gleason role. While the material remains the same, the character is treated as one of three equally prominent leads. This does wonders for the show. There’s a stretch midway through the first act (beginning with the father’s lone solo, “I’m Staying Young”) that is remarkably involving, drawing the viewer into the story during what has traditionally been a lull between the star’s entrance song and his soft-shoe duet, “Take Me Along” (the score’s only hit).
The Irish Rep production reveals unsuspected depth in Merrill’s score, while the book by Joseph Stein and Bob Russell also works better without an outsized star hogging the attention.
This transformation owes a good deal to the actors in the central roles. As Uncle Sid, Don Stephenson clowns things up, as he must, but does so while finding the humanity in the character as originally written by O’Neill.
William Parry plays the father, scoring heavily with both his solo and the exceedingly droll facts-of-life lecture to his wayward son.
Beth Glover brings warmth and humor to the spinster Aunt Lily , culminating in an endearing performance of Merrill’s fine character study, “Promise Me a Rose.” Stephenson and Glover eventually join together, with a couple of gentle tugs at the tear ducts in their final scenes.
Support comes from an engaging (if sometimes uncomfortably stretched) group of eight, notably Donna Bullock as wife-and-sister to the leading men; Teddy Eck as the comically tormented teenager; Emily Skeggs as his “Annabel Lee”-loving fiancee; and Anastasia Barzee as a small-town floozy who can’t quite subvert the son.
Mark Hartman leads the four-piece band, choreographer Barry McNabb gives Stephenson and Parry a nice turn for the title tune, and designer James Morgan fills the awkward rectangle of a space with a joyful painted drop of Centerville, Conn. (i.e. Bridgeport), circa 1920.