East Haddam, Conn. — Some of the new office buldings these days have a theater tucked inside them. But the one William H. Goodspeed built on the banks of the Connecticut became the marvelous excuse for putting a theater right upstairs way back in 1876.
Then, about 20 years ago the Goodspeed Opera House was rescued from long neglect and spruced up, inside and out. Ever since then it has looked highly pleased with itself.
And why shouldn't it? Not only has this gem of a theater, under Michael P. Price's direction, provided Broadway with such fine musicals as "Man of LaMancha" (among the originals) and "Very Good Eddie" (among the revivals), but it has sent along the skills and flair and just plain zippiness for doing them right.
Whether or not this midsummer revival of George M. Cohan's "Little Johnny Jones" goes to Broadway, as talk has it, the show has proved a very pleasant reason for taking the trip to East haddam (through Sept. 13 -- be sure to phone ahead).
For me it was especially so, since I had just been to "Tintypes" at the Theater of St. Peter's Church on New York's LExington Avenue. "Tintypes" is an engagingly acted-out potpourri of turn-of-the-century tunes that opens with Jerry Zaks, as a baggy-suited Polish immigrant, spitting out an intensely unorthodox version of Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Boy," and goes on quite delightfully from there.
But its program didn't list show titles. So what was our delight, soon after slipping into our seats for "Johnny Jones" at the Goodspeed, to be greeted by a gentle, expert Cohan cue-line that had to be for that very familiar number. Yes , here was "Yankee Doodle Boy" in its home territory, done up in an eye-feast of a production number that sang and tapped the living daylights out of Cohan's infectious music.
At the center of it all Thomas Hulce was thorougly winning as Johnny, a true-blue American jockey who gets snared by a conspiratorial Britisher (Peter Van Norden) at the Derby. The main object of the conspiracy is not Johnny himself, but the riches of his cooper-heiress sweetheart. Maureen Brennan makes a pert San Franciscan out of Goldie, and has fun with her improbable but blithe disguise as the English peer who is supposed to be Johnny's rival for her hand.
What the plot lacks in credibility it makes up for in sheer sportiness, with plenty of help from this strong cast, directed by Gerald Gutierrez, dancing to Dan Siretta's swirling choreography in David Toser's smart costumes, and under the glow of Peter M. Ehrhardt's lights.
Among the others were Anna McNeely as Goldie's flirtatious aunt and guardian, Jane Galloway as a comically susceptible society reporter, and Ernie Sabella, who cracks wise in London and saves the day for Johnny at Saratoga.
As for the music, not to mention the fine and hearty singing and playing of it under Lynn Crigler's direction, I found no reason whatever for the condescension that has appeared in other reports. "Blue Skies, Gray Skies" has been neatly grafted from another Cohan musical to give Mr. Hulce a pleasing moment of lyricism.
Other numbers prance along nicely, but the two big ones here have bounced around the world through 80 years of American history and -- judging at least by this handsome Goodspeed production -- can keep on doing so indefinitely: "Yankee Doodle" is kingpin of the first act; and "Give My Regard to Broadway" is just as gently begun, rousingly filled out, and joyously welcome in the second.
Nobody's saying Cohan was a Gershwin, a Porter, or a Rodgers. Je was just a manifestly superb showman who not only wrote good tunes to catchy words but put them in place to stay.