Musical numbers: “Saturday Night,” “Class,” “Delighted I’m Sure,” “Love’s a Bond,” “Isn’t It,” “In the Movies,” “Exhibit A,” “A Moment With You,” “Montana Chem,” “So Many People,” “One Wonderful Day,” “I Remember That,” “All for You,” “That Kind of Neighborhood,” “What More Do I Need.”
Chi’s Pegasus Players, an impoverished, non-Equity troupe, has developed such a warm relationship with Stephen Sondheim over the years that the illustrious icon of the American theater has handed over the rights for the U.S. premiere of “Saturday Night,” his first musical, and penned two additional songs in the bargain. With a very young cast longer on enthusiasm than top-rank musical-theater savvy, and with a cheap-looking set, director Gary Griffin’s earnest, debut production is a rough-and-ready affair. But there’s an excellent orchestra wrapping itself around Sondheim’s delightful melodies and enough overall charm to reveal that this sweet, appealing piece is a great deal more than a mere early Sondheim curiosity.
Originally headed for the Broadway season of 1955, the death of the show’s original producer, Lemeul Ayers, nixed that debut and the show was mothballed for the next 40 years. That was not true, though, of many numbers: “Saturday Night,” “So Many People” and “A Moment With You” all showed up in Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little.”
The book and the rest of the “Saturday Night” original score were first seen in London last year at the Bridewell Theater, in a production that ran over three hours. Since then, Sondheim has edited down the book (based on “Flat Porch in Flatbush” and originally penned by “Casablanca” screenwriter Julius J. Epstein) and added a couple of new ditties: “Montana Chem” and “Delighted I’m Sure.”
Even Jonathan Tunick showed up in Chicago to work on the new orchestrations. The result is a simple but nonetheless engaging romantic comedy that looks back to the classic tuners of the 1940s far more than it lurches forward to “West Side Story” and beyond. But if the style is resoundingly traditional and the pervasive mood dreamy rather than spectacular, the characters are very warm and engaging. There’s a lovely two-handed ballad (“Isn’t It”) and a powerful solo (“Exhibit A”). More importantly, the central dreamer is the kind of earnest, likable New Yorker who would be a lovely Broadway debut for some cheery all-American boy or moonlighting movie star.
Given a big budget, a deliciously retro setting and a stylish design veneer, this show could potentially sustain a small-scale commercial outing; the book, after all, would need less doctoring than “Annie Get Your Gun.”
The show centers on “the Gang,” a bunch of youthful, lower-middle-class neighborhood wannabes who would all like to make a big killing on Wall Street and trade their lonely Saturday nights in Flatbush for hot dates on Park Avenue.
Chief dreamer is Gene (Ian Brennan), a Billy Liar-type who almost talks his way into a Plaza ballroom and falls for a beautiful woman (played by Elizabeth Sayre Yeats) in the lobby. Plot complications arise when Gene’s various shady moneymaking schemes blow up in his face, and he ends up persona non grata with the neighborhood boys and Celeste (Samantha Fitschen), a kind of collective surrogate mother. Everything, ‘natch, works out fine.
Aside from the timeless truth that anyone home on a Saturday night always feels like a loser, there are no earth-shattering themes at play here. But there’s an engaging social realism about this thoughtful show, which dramatizes the pervasive underbelly of economic expansion. Although the awkward cop-shop climax could use more work, the book is otherwise well-paced and humorous, replete with assorted wise guys and gals all hustling their way forward in the time-honored Yankee tradition. “Let me comfort my half of you,” wittily declares one fellow on a date with a “shared” girlfriend, and there are plenty of other humorous nuggets.
Fans of “Marry Me a Little” know the quality of the title number, “Saturday Night,” and most of the rest of the score lives up to that mark. Griffin’s youthful players give this show everything in their arsenal (especially strong work comes from Philip Dawkins, and the splendid female pair of Yeats and Fitschen). And although Brennan is thin on the vocal chops, he’s a very likable Gene.
All “Saturday Night” really needs now is a little further TLC and an injection of cash. It’s no hidden masterpiece but it is a very workable, charming and tuneful little musical.