Robert Mulligan’s nostalgic coming-of-age picture “Summer of ’42” is perhaps best left to flattering hindsight; its slight, sentimental appeal hasn’t aged too well. All the more surprising, then, that the new musical adaptation wrought by librettist Hunter Foster, composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum and director Gabriel Barre emerges as a work of engaging substance as well as considerable charm. Making its official debut at TheatreWorks following a developmental Goodspeed production, “Summer” could prove a real regional crowdpleaser. Of course, whether something this soft, sweet and story- (as opposed to star/spectacle-) driven can survive at Broadway altitude is another question entirely.
With its gauzy photography, swooning Francis Lai instrumental theme and Cover Girl-turned-thesp Jennifer O’Neill as object of desire, the 1971 screen original was more romantic mood piece than anything else. Foster’s book makes notable improvements on Herman Raucher’s screenplay. He heightens period flavor, adds two narrational elements for contextual ballast and gently lowers the lead female role from its goddessy pedestal to more emotionally immediate terra firma.
Basic story remains very much the same, as authorial alter-ego Hermie (Ryan Driscoll) spends one unforgettable summer on a New England coastal island while World War rages at a comfortable distance. Suddenly girl-crazy, he along with brash best friend Oscy (Brett Tabisel) and nerdy Benjie (Jason Marcus) hardly hear the occasional air-raid siren over their own roaring adolescent hormones.
They peg amorous hopes on three not-unwilling local bobbysoxers, but Hermie has already lost his head over Dorothy (Kate Jennings Grant), a vivacious “older woman” living alone on the isle while her newlywed husband, Pete (Greg Stone), does a tour of Army duty in the South Pacific. When the Terrible Telegram arrives late in act two, their friendship briefly becomes something else: Hermie’s sexual initiation serves also to provide a young widow urgently needed emotional comfort.
If the film suggested this event as a bittersweet yet very lucky break, the stage adaptation lends it considerably more pained nuance. Director-choreographer Gabriel Barre (of Manhattan Theater Club’s “The Wild Party”) stages the wordless seg as a tender mime in dimming light, melding the dramatic and (modest) dance elements that have been closely interwoven all evening long. It’s a testament to the collaborators’ tasteful smarts that this seg comes off less as the night’s main event than as a poignant crystallization of its emotional currents.
Dorothy reps both tuner’s biggest improvement and shortcoming — viewed from much less of an adoring, objectifying distance than in Mulligan’s film, she’s down-to-earth, good-humored and beautifully sung by Grant. Yet her solos and duets with Stone never get beyond rote statements of grownup marital bliss; these numbers (“Little Did I Dream,” “Someone to Dance With Me,” “Promise of the Morning”) are the show’s least engaging by far.
Nearly everything else, however, works like a charm. Teenage lust is delightfully mined for both slapstick and situational comic riffs, with operettaish set pieces like an awkward date at “The Movies” or a stammering condom purchase (“The Drugstore”) spinning predictable teenpic gags into pure gold.
A trio of peer-aged femmes doubles as a Greek chorus, donning retro styles to gently amplify/mock the boys’ pre-Sexual Revolution naivete via songs that form a pastiche of ’40s “Hit Parade” idioms. Elsewhere, Kirschenbaum’s pleasant if unmemorable score is closer to contempo AOR, echoing Lai’s famous theme only vaguely in plaintive, piano-driven melodic lines.
Youthful players are terrific down the line. Goodspeed holdover Driscoll makes Hermie as wholesome as an Ivory soap bar, with an emotionally transparent vocabulary of High Puberty behaviors that are hilarious without curdling into caricature. Equally fine is Tabisel (a Tony nominee for “Big”), whose horndog Oscy adds maximum zest to the proceedings. Conceivably, marquee stars could be used to pump commercial viability, but that might undercut the unpretentious conviction current edition has firmly grasped.
Wistful tenor is set by Tim Hunter’s sunset-rich lighting and James Youmans’ spacious, handsome beachfront set. Modest props are rolled out to evoke the few interiors required. A 10-piece orchestra flatters Kirshenbaum’s ephemeral score, as attractively arranged and conducted by Lynne Shankel. Trump card, however, is Barre’s seamless directorial control — more than any other factor, his attention to pictoral lyricism, character nuance and noncamp humor lend “Summer’s” slight material an alluring warmth.