June Moon by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Jessica Stone. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You've been thinking of Sophie Tucker in 'Strange Interlude.'"
Innocence is worth its weight in gold, diamonds and pearls. That is the gem of an idea that brought Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman to write "June Moon," now gracing the stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival as its season opener. In this 1929 play the innocent generate the sparks of human comedy that have kept this play alive for 85 years. The current production proves, once again, how inevitable it is that the truly engaging innocents of this world will prevail. While we laugh at the comedy, we revel in the reality. It's a swell combination.
The 1929 season was one of the most incredible of any year, more plays produced on Broadway than ever before and some of the most enduring and invaluable hits of all were part of it. Marc Connelly's all-Black "The Green Pastures" was a phenomenon for the time. Spencer Tracy (later replaced by Clark Gable - both prefilm careeers) starred in "The Last Mile." Two George Gershwin hits were produced: "Show Girl" starring Ruby Keeler and Jimmie Durante, and "Strike Up The Band" with Bobby Clark. There were two Cole Porter hits as well: "Fifty Million Frenchmen" with William Gaxton, Genevieve Tobin and Helen Broderick, and "Wake Up and Dream" with Jessie Matthews, Jack Buchnanan and Tilly Losch. Noel Coward's operetta "Bitter Sweet" graced the season starring Evelyn Laye and there are far too many more to include in this short list.
"June Moon" starred Norman Foster, Jean Dixon, Lee Patrick, Philip Loeb and Leo Kennedy. It was hailed as one of the best plays of the year by critic Burns Mantle. He found great promise in the collaboration of an east coast sophisticate and a "middle western representative of the homely native wit, selecting it for his annual collection of the best of American theatre writing.
The new production stars Nate Corddry as Fred Stevens, a Schenectady native, a GE worker, on his way to New York City to become a song lyricist. He meets a girl from Hudson, New York on the train and they become friends. She, Edna Baker played by Rachel Napoleon, is a dental assistant in the "big" city and she promises to show him around. These two innocents instantly fall in love and neither of them realizes it until sometime later. As usual, she knows it first. Fred, in the meantime begins a collaboration with composer Paul Sears (whose one big hit, "Paprika", has not lead to another one). for Goebels and Hart publishers. That collaboration leads young, sweet Fred into a disastrous romance and within the thin walls of comedy this is where the plot lies.
Corddry is charming, sweet and infectiously ingratiating in the role of Fred. He plays even the garbled lingo of the man and his period with a naturalness that seems to be less acting than living on stage. Half of the play is on his shoulders and he moves with ease and grace through the entire thing. He begins by bumbling his self-introduction to Edna and ends up more citified but no less innocent in his ultimate declarations at the end of the play. He's a delight to watch.
Rick Holmes makes smarmy into a joy as he plays Paul Sears with panache leading to regret. As his wife, Lucille, Kate MacCluggage gives the boredom of a wrong marriage a certain sweet chill. In the Lee Patrick part of Lucille's sister Eileen, Holley Fain makes the most of her charms as she woos Fred into a dangerous friendship. Rachel Napoleon brings a high level of honest sweetness into the part of Edna Baker. Her enthusiasm for all things "Fred, (including the good and bad parts) brings a depth into innocence that was truly unexpected.
Christopher Fitzgerald makes a most engaging Benny Fox, who tries constantly to have his novelty songs appreciated. David Turner as Maxie, the piano-man, delivers one of the best performances in the play, his honesty and his humor masking a heart that longs to sing on its own. Jason Bowman is fun as the windowcleaner and Timothy Shew as Mr. Hart, the publisher, has a wonderfully period sensibility that endows his role with stage honesty, a nice quality to present.
The large cast of supporting players, song pluggers and piano players help deliver a large-scope reality to the play about tin-pan alley and its denizens. Designed brilliantly by Tobin Ost (sets) Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Jeff Croiter (lights), director Jessica Stone had every advantage a commander-in-chief could hope for in a crew: good actors, good designers, good play, good producer. What she achieves with all of these fine resources is an excellent means of attacking an old show and making it seem new again. What she has brought to life on the Williamstown stage has all the best of the business about it. And innocence triumphs once again through her vision of the play.
Nate Corddry as Fred Stevens; photo: T Charles Erickson
Timothy Shew, Jason Bowen, Christopher Fitzgerald, Nate Corddry, Rick Holmes; photo: T Charles Erickson
Rachel Napoleon and Nate Corddry; photo: T Charles Erickson
June Moon plays through July 13 on the main stage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org.