Broadway serves up a tempting picnic of memories

For Broadway musicals, this is turning out to be a springtime of reminiscence and nostalgia. First came ``Leader of the Pack,'' with its salute to Ellie Greenwich and the do-wop refrains of the 1960s. ``Take Me Along'' turned back the calendar to 1906 for a revival of the 1959 song-and-dance treatment of Eugene O'Neill's ``Ah, Wilderness!'' ``Grind,'' the most recent reminder of an earlier Americana, recalls the sleazy milieu of Chicago burlesque in 1933, the year of the Century of Progress World's Fair. Still ahead on the agenda are ``Big River,'' drawn from Mark Twain's ``Huckleberry Finn,'' and ``Singin' in the Rain,'' based on the 1952 MGM classic. Grind Musical comedy by Fay Kanin (book), Larry Grossman (music), and Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics). Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography by Lester Wilson. Starring Ben Vereen, Leilani Jones, Timothy Nolen, and Stubby Kaye.

Two-thirds of the way through the second act of ``Grind,'' which opened last night at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, comes the moment the audience has been waiting for. Ben Vereen, whose least movement is a beau geste, takes the stage to execute the dazzling intricacies of ``New Man.'' Breaking loose from the trammels of a plot-heavy spectacle, Mr. Vereen struts, twirls, leaps, and gambols through a one-man exhibition of eccentric jazz dancing. His attitudes define the geometry of the body. The results are exhilarating.

In their tale of Chicago burlesque in the depression years of the 1930s, a team of talented collaborators has sought not only to explore the onstage and backstage existence of a show-biz subculture, but to say something meaningful about race and human relations.

As depicted by librettist Fay Kanin, composer Larry Grossman, and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, the grind of daily ``burlesk,'' with its striptease and low comedy, occurs within the context of a then-prevailing police-enforced racism that segregated black and white performers. The two-tier plot involves the triangular relationship in which volatile star Leroy (Mr. Vereen) is outraged to find himself in a rivalry with white newcomer Jim Doyle (Timothy Nolen) over black chanteuse Satin (Leilani Jones). A drink-sodden Jim has been rescued from the gutter to stooge for top banana Gus (Stubby Kaye). The results of Gus's failing eyesight provide the subordinate plot. ``Grind'' reaches a riotous climax as the company finally discovers its common humanity against a common enemy and makes a gesture toward integration.

Meanwhile, the business of burlesque goes on, to the accompaniment of a score that ranges from '30s razzmatazz and torch song to Gaelic-style ballad and the gospel-like ``These Eyes of Mine,'' with which Carol Woods raises the roof. As the silken Satin, Miss Jones also proves that she can belt out a number with the best of them. Mr. Nolen brings a commanding presence and an operatic baritone to the somewhat unlikely role of Jim Doyle, an Irishman with a murky past. Mr. Kaye proves himself a game trouper as the afflicted Gus.

In a narrative exposition as elaborate as designer Clarke Dunham's towering set, an important part of the director's task is to make as sure as possible that the audience doesn't get lost in the plot lines and scenery. Harold Prince has achieved the feat by maintaining momentum even when ``Grind'' deserts its performance habitat for the Chicago locales through which the romantic plot unfolds. Lester Wilson's choreography gives the burlesque clowns and female dancers of the cast some vigorous workouts. ``Grind'' eschews today's penchant for nudity while fulfilling the striptease conventions of its time.

Paul Gemignani is the invaluable pit maestro (bowler hat and all) of the occasion. ``Grind'' cost a reported $4.75 million and shows it, not only in the complex settings but in Florence Klotz's gaudy costumes, with lighting by Ken Billington. This viewer would have happily settled for less razzle-dazzle, fewer plot complications, and more solo Ben Vereen. Take Me Along Musical comedy by Bob Merrill (music and lyrics) and Joseph Stein and Robert Russell (book). Directed by Thomas Gruenewald. Choreography and musical staging by Dan Siretta.

``Take Me Along'' came to town in a non-star revival of the 1959 musical based on ``Ah, Wilderness!'' Eugene O'Neill's only venture into sunlit comedy. Bob Merrill's music and lyrics once more spread melodic good cheer and sentimentality. Librettists Joseph Stein and Robert Russell did their work with affection and respect. But the production received mixed notices and closed at the Martin Beck Theatre on the day after its opening night.

Of the three numbers added to the 1959 edition, ``In the Company of Men,'' a July 4th picnic romp, probably fared best. In it, Nat Miller and Sid Davis (Robert Nichols and Kurt Knudson) led the male ensemble through a kick-line routine of the type that audiences find irresistible. It deservedly stopped the show.

``Take Me Along'' took the audience along for a pleasant nostalgia trip to Centerville, Conn., in 1906. While young Richard Miller (Gary Landon Wright) suffered pangs of love and dejection over pretty Muriel Macomber (Taryn Grimes), the autumnal romance of boozy Sid Davis and Aunt Lillie Miller (Beth Fowler) pursued its unsteady course. Richard's callow desperation received its comic view in Mr. Wright's performance, including his delivery (with Miss Grimes) of ``I Would Die.'' The adaptation came closest to the more poignant theme of ``Ah, Wilderness,'' with Miss Fowler's tender and admirably sung Lillie.

The tunes of ``Take Me Along'' cover the familiar musical spectrum of such entertainments. Nat and the townsfolk started things off rousingly with ``Marvelous Fire Machine,'' an Independence Day salute to Centerville's shiny new fire engine. In ``Staying Young,'' Nat considered the aging process, he and Cid taking full advantage of the catchiness and soft-shoe paces of the title song.

As originally presented in 1959, ``Take Me Along'' didn't make the honor roll of Broadway's legendary musicals. It's a hum-along, family-oriented diversion in an honorable show-business tradition -- a tradition honored in the performance directed by Thomas Gruenewald and conducted by Lynn Crigler. At the vital functional level of stage craftsmanship, the production enjoyed the benefits of James Leonard Joy's scenic collages, Craig Miller's lighting, and David Toser's costumes.

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