This review was corrected on September 5, 2000.
There’s a good reason to see “Dandelion Wine,” a musicalization of Ray Bradbury’s novel currently being revived at the Colony Theater Co., and his name is Matt Raftery. Raftery, featured in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast,” has so much electricity and charm in the pivotal role that he distracts you from flaws in Jeffrey Rockwell’s score and Bradbury’s book. The show’s basic stumbling point is a story devoid of drama and tension.
Set in Illinois during the summer of 1928, “Dandelion Wine” concentrates on 16-year-old Douglas (Raftery), a young man bursting with optimism about the vacation ahead. We see him interact amiably with best friend John (Philip Watt), shoe salesman Mr. Sanderson (Whitney Rydbeck), arcade owner Leo (D. Ewing Woodruff) and a 99-year-old colonel (Robert O’ Reilly).
Douglas is an updated Tom Sawyer, but he’s too wholesome; like Mark Twain’s hero, he needs a streak of adolescent rebellion. It would also help to see him pitted against strong opponents, like a possessive Aunt Polly or a murderous Injun Joe.
The first hint of a dark cloud on this utopian landscape occurs when a stranger, Bill Forrester (David Carey Foster) arrives and boards at Douglas’ home. He asks Douglas to show him the city, and we suspect hidden motives, but director Terrence Shank is so subtle in developing the mystery that we feel no involvement or jeopardy.
Only at the end, when the plot takes a sudden turn, does “Dandelion Wine” give evidence of the forceful drama it might have been. We realize belatedly that Bradbury’s script contains all the setups, but the payoffs are muted by excessively polite music and direction that fails to stir up vitally needed suspense.
Aside from too many characters and a sprawling, unfocused plotline, Rockwell’s music (which replaced the 1981 score by Billy Goldenberg and Larry Alexander) is a major problem. Rockwell’s lyrics comment on situations without dramatizing them. Characters sing about internal feelings but have no direct, passionate confrontations. The melodies are dissonant when they should be tuneful, and the lyrics, while picturesque, settle for pastoral cliches. “Paralitefoot Tennis Shoes” is one notable exception, a delightful number in which Douglas tries on a pair of shoes and dances with youthful abandon.
Throughout the production, Raftery displays agility as a dancer, aided by Brian Frette’s sprightly choreography. Judy Walstrum is lovable and funny as Miss Fern, an eccentric lady with premonitions of danger, and O’Reilly brings authority to the part of the elderly colonel. Foster, in the enigmatic role of the stranger, is too solemn and low key.
The Colony’s new quarters in Burbank provide an appropriately intimate setting for the show, and Richard Berent’s band (with finely detailed orchestrations by James Vukovich) does well by the material. John Patrick’s scenic design and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes effectively project the flavor of a 20th century town, and D. Sylvio Volonte’s lighting gives the show continuous visual interest.