Joining the recently opened “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and next month’s production of “The Visit,” “The Happy Time” continues the Signature Theater’s three-month celebration of the collaborations of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. The seldom produced 1968 David Merrick musical receives a fresh and earnest revival, staged by Michael Unger with ultimate intimacy in Signature’s tiny Ark Theater.
K&E were riding high on the success of “Cabaret” when Merrick tapped the composing team to pen the score to accompany N. Richard Nash’s book about a globe-trotting French-Canadian photographer (Robert Goulet in the Broadway production) who reflects on a visit to his childhood village circa 1920. Backed by a three-person combo, the sepia-toned perspective is presented here on a bare stage in front of projection screens displaying a continuing collage of the artist’s photos.
A swaggering Michael Minarik plays the cocky interloper, who gleefully upsets the family dynamics with his strong views about how his timid nephew should be raised. Youngster Jace Casey makes the most of his opportunity as the impressionable tyke eager to follow his uncle’s every suggestion. Others in the mostly even cast include David Margulies as the sensible grandfather and voice of reason (although curiously, he’s the only cast member adopting a French-Canadian accent).
Unger keeps the kid-filled cast in perpetual motion as the tale unfolds in the schoolyard, a nightclub and the family homestead. Choreographer Karma Camp mixes it up with ensemble dancing and even some soft-shoe. She has plenty to work with, since Signature reinserted four numbers that had been cut following the Broadway production.
But excess pluck and energy can’t disguise the reasons “Happy” was a Broadway disappointment (it ran 286 perfs). The problems begin with Nash’s disjointed tale of the not-so-joyful reminiscence. Instead of revolving around the young lad’s struggle through adolescence, it focuses on the travel-weary adult’s reluctance to plant roots, a ho-hummer of a plot weakened by the character’s constant defiance, belatedly tinged with regret. Why the lovely and sensible schoolmarm (an extremely sincere Carrie A. Johnson) would pine for him is the operative question.
Nor is it Kander and Ebb’s finest hour. With precious few exceptions, such as the perky title tune, they have offered a forgettable collection of nondescript numbers. When the Broadway standard, “A Certain Girl,” is finally reached more than mid-way through act two, it’s as if someone finally opened a window.
But the songs are performed with sincerity by a cadre of sturdy voices led by Minarik and Johnson. Margulies’ wise old gentleman adds a notable touch of class in his musical numbers and his steadying influence on the warring family members.