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WTF's 'June Moon" a satiric, warm-hearted look at songwriters in the 1920's

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'June Moon' at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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It may already by July but there’s a “June Moon” brightly shining over the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s (WTF) first production of its 60th season, which opened on Thursday, June 3rd with a rare but welcome revival of the 1929 George S. Kaufman/Ring Lardner comedy of that name.

Now hearing the phrase “June Moon” may conjure up the idea of hammy but catchy songs—and that’s exactly what the creators were intending. The play, based upon one of Lardner’s own cynical short stories, is meant to be a send up of the dog-eat-dog world of songwriting along New York’s Tin Pan Alley, where a single hit could make a composer and lyricist a fortune but spark any number of copycats hurrying to cash in on a musical trend’s popularity. But as the songwriters at the center of “June Moon” know, what’s popular and catchy one year may wear out its welcome by the next and thus the search for exciting new talent is constant.

Director Jessica Stone, who was responsible for WTF’s delightful “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum” several summers ago, has staged an intelligent and cogent production with a pitch perfect cast who are able to maneuver between the play’s genuine humor and underlying seriousness. This is not a “silly” comedy, but one that is grounded in the reality of the period and of the business, which is perhaps why the play remains able to resonate with a modern audience.

The plot focuses on Fred Stevens, a naïve young man from Schenectady, who’s leaving home for the first time to pursue a career in New York as a lyricist. As played with a boyish eagerness by the appealing Nate Corddry (who audiences may recall from the Kathy Bates series, “Harry’s Law”), Fred is at heart an honorable All-American, as demonstrated in his meeting on the train down to the City with an equally sheltered but sweetly enthusiastic dental assistant named Edna “Eddie” Baker, played by Rachel Napoleon with a mixture of level-headedness and pent-up anticipation . Their parlor car courtship is gently amusing as Fred tries to shyly impress Eddie with his friendships at his former employer, “the GE,” while she must temper her excitement at this unexpected attention from a clean cut young man who seems to share similar values.

They continue to see each other once Fred arrives in New York and enters into a songwriting collaboration with a blocked composer, Paul Sears, played with a tired sophistication by Rick Holmes. Sears is a one-hit wonder with the song “Paprika,” the punch line to any number of jokes in the script, and hasn’t had any major success or that much income ever since. His wife, Lucille, a peppy headstrong redhead played with an exasperated verve by Kate MacCluggage, yearns for more excitement than her work-obsessed, humiliated husband is able to provide, leading her to pepper her conversation with saucy little digs at her husband’s fortitude and career, as well as stress her disappointment in losing the social benefits she anticipated through a marriage to a Broadway songwriter.

Lucille’s dissatisfaction is further complicated by the presence of her sister, Eileen, a blond flapper-esque manhunter looking for a rich payday through an affair with Mr. Hart, the married music publisher for whom Paul and Fred work. When Hart appears to lose interest, Eileen turns her attention to the gullible Fred, who has brought some money with him from upstate and whose promise has encouraged Hart to advance him some salary. After selling his first song with Paul to Hart, Fred becomes more and more involved with Eileen, who eats through his money with a steady aplomb while introducing him to the exciting world of New York nightclubs, expensive gin and after-hour parties. Holley Fain ably mixes Eileen’s attractiveness and pseudo-sophistication with her character’s coarseness and desperation, as she struggles to manipulate Freddie for her ends.

A performer whose past work has consistently impressed me, David Turner, does so once again with a marvelous turn as Maxie, an arranger with an acerbic wit who nonetheless possess a remarkable compassion for the songwriters in his orbit. While definitely conveying Maxie’s cynicism brought about in part by his own regret at never becoming an accomplished songwriter in his own right, Turner avoids giving an Oscar Levant style turn, but instead imbues Maxie with a sincere shyness that has perhaps limited his success in this rather high-stress environment as well as a wisdom that only the opera singing secretary, the Goldie of Diana DiMarzio, can appreciate.

An all-but-unrecognizable, but lucidly zany Christopher Fitzgerald offers a splendidly comic take on Benny Fox, a songwriter whose lyrics can make grown women cringe and whose tunes often bear remarkable resemblance to some public hits of past years. As Benny tries to get Hart and his fellow composers to listen to each of his new pieces, Fitzgerald successfully creates a whirlwind of a frantic, sometimes annoying character who his colleagues try mightily to avoid. Some of Benny’s ill-fated songs were written by Lardner and Kaufman themselves and they provide a knowingly satiric slap at what constituted popular music of their day. Jason Bowen has a delightful turn as a window cleaner who’s fascinated by the music business and manages to plink out some Harlem jazz when nobody’s looking.

One of Stone’s major conceits, thanks to the impressive size of the theater’s non-equity ensemble and its cadre of apprentices, is to include a glimpse of the songwriting activity going on at Goebel’s, the hit-making business that Hart operates with his long-absent business partner. As the audience shuffles into WTF’s Mainstage, we see and hear, off to one side of the stage, various singers with their backs to the audience trying to sell or “plug” their songs with the help of a pianist in one of the music rooms of the office, a sort of 1929 predecessor of the famed Brill Building. At the top of the second act, as we are treated to a few more examples of the song pluggers in action, this time on both sides of the stage, the curtain goes up on Tobin Ost’s evocative recreation of a music publishing office with song pluggers scattered throughout the smaller music rooms across the set, whose voices join in a thrilling juxtaposition of some of the more famous songs of the era, thanks to music director Kris Kukul, in an aural coup de theatre that sets up the even more rewarding second act of the play.

In addition to Ost’s spot on set design that transports the audience quickly back to 1929, Gregg Barnes’ array of costumes encapsulate the period as well, through a selection of business attire, lounge wear, and dresses, hats and shoes typical of any self-respecting social striver. Jeff Croiter’s lighting subtly suggests evening time during a scene set at the Sears’ New York apartment and captures the daylight activities within the publishing office. Drew Levy’s sound design modulates the competing sounds of pianos and human voices, so that lyrics and dialogue are never missed.

The actors try to put forward the right mix of dialogues common in New York, with MacCluggage and Fain managing different takes on a Brooklyn natural nasal tone, with MacCluggage having adopted a slightly more sophisticated tonal structure for Lucille and Fain maintaining the more traditional across the river slang.

Corddry’s performance remains the heart of the play, as the awe-struck young outsider is taken in by the lush life to which his new friends introduce him. But if Corddry is the heart, then Turner is the soul of the piece—an old soul no doubt but in the body of such a young man—whose Maxie, despite his sardonic wit, still roots for the good guys and is willing to do something about it. The actor enjoys a delicious throw-away sight gag with the jazz-playing Bowen at the end of the second act, a commentary on how Maxie doesn’t take himself so seriously and lays the groundwork for perhaps a new songwriting partnership that emerges at the end of the show.

“June Moon” plays through July 13 on the WTF Mainstage. For information and tickets, call the Williamstown Box Office at 413.597.3400 or visit their website at www.wtfestival.org.

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