A musical that's like a Rockwell painting. Nostalgic comedy, `Take Me Along,' is now at Washington's Kennedy Center
``Take Me Along,'' the vintage musical now at Kennedy Center, takes us back to the time of band concerts on the village mall, taffy pulls, and lemonade on the veranda. It is slathered in nostalgia, and one of the most endearing evenings in the theater since ``Annie,'' which, like this musical, originated as a production of the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. As the chorus sings, the mauve scrim goes up on Centerville, the prettiest town in Connecticut, with the tallest elms. It is July 4, 1906, and the townspeople bustle around in their sherbet-colored summer cottons, then march behind their new Modern Fire Machine to the parade.
Nat Miller (Robert Nichols), editor of the Centerville Globe, stands watching on the porch of his Victorian house as he belts out a song (``Oh, Please'') with his family. For this is a family musical, down home as a patchwork quilt and intimate as a sing-around-the-piano in the parlor. It's the kind of musical that the audience leaves with a smile, singing the tunes with blithe abandon.
``Take Me Along,'' in short, is a musical that might have been painted by Norman Rockwell. It was taken from the play ``Ah, Wilderness!'' which, although it has a Thornton Wilder ambiance, was actually written by Eugene O'Neill as his only comedy. But in the Miller family's hard-drinking Uncle Sid (Kurt Knudson), there is a hint of the O'Neill demons he was to write about so tragically in his other plays.
Sid is the role that Jackie Gleason made famous when the musical first opened on Broadway in 1959 in a merry production with Walter Pidgeon as editor Nat Miller. Knudson looks uncannily like The Great One in the role of Sid, but also brings his own raffish charm to the part. The townspeople are all there at the train to sing ``Sid Ole Kid'' affectionately as they welcome him home from his reporting job in Waterbury. He is a round, mustachioed man wearing a big grin and a straw bowler; a tan-and-black, windowpane plaid suit with vest hung with a watch fob; and yellow shoes. He carries a Fred Astaire cane. Astaire he's not, but he has his own magic, moving with a grace that's a delight to watch.
The biggest hits of the show are Sid's soft-shoe number with cane in this scene and a dance he does later with Nat and a male chorus line that carries on like a macho version of the Rockettes in a number called ``In the Company of Men.'' In fact, Dan Siretta's choreography and musical staging of these numbers were so fine I wish he had juiced up some of the other numbers with more dancing. In ``I Get Embarrassed,'' the playful chase-and-love song between Sid and Lily, the maiden aunt who has patiently waited 14 years for him to sober up, the number could have used a Victorian tango or two. And the final chorus of the rousing ``Take Me Along,'' done as a curtain call, cried out for one last prance of a dance.
O'Neill's ``Ah, Wilderness!'' focused on the romance between Nat Miller's younger son, Richard, a moonstruck and poetic 16-year-old (Gary Landon Wright) and Muriel Macomber, daughter of the town reactionary (Taryn Grimes). The title was taken from Richard's fascination with ``The Rub'aiy'at of Omar Khayyam'' and its lines that get him in trouble with Muriel's father: ``A jug of wine, a loaf of bread -- and thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness -- Oh, wilderness were paradise enow!'' In the book for ``Take Me Along,'' by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell, the moonlight is spread around to shine equally on Sid and Lily, ending the show on a reprise of their romance rather than Richard and Muriel's.
``Take Me Along'' is such a winning musical that it seems like carping to point out this revival's shortcomings. Act I alone is worth the price of admission, but Act II drags -- lacking the crisp, deft pacing that director Thomas Gruenewald imposed on the first half. Part of the problem may lie with the story line, which darkens in the second act; still, it needn't be soggy. But Gruenewald has generally played to the strengths of this musical and resisted the temptation to camp it up for laughs, as many revivals do. He treats it lovingly, like a family album.
Among the other strengths are its gloriously foot-tapping and singable score by Bob Merrill, a series of deliciously quaint sets by Leonard Joy, and David Toser's bouncy, turn-of-the-century costumes. In addition to Knudson's ineffable Sid, the talented cast includes Robert Nichols in a mellow performance as Nat Miller, Betty Johnson's soothing Essie Miller, his wife; Beth Fowler as the graceful and long-suffering Lily; Stephen McDonough as their oldest son, a stuffy Yale freshman named Arthur; Taryn Grimes as the smitten Muriel; and Allison Seffren as Mildred, the Millers' perky daughter.
The whisper around Kennedy Center is that its chairman, Roger Stevens, saw the Goodspeed production of ``Take Me Along'' and fell in love with it, booking it quickly into Kennedy Center on impulse without elaborate preparations. The next time Mr. Stevens has an impulse like this, Kennedy Center audiences may say ``Take Me Along'' again.