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The Theatregoer Take Me Along at Agassiz tonight and tomorrow, Nov, 13-15

By Frank Rich

WHO WAS the jerk who first started telling the world that apple pie was synonymous with America? William Jennings Bryan? Alexander Graham Bell? Durward Kirby? Well. whoever he was. he would probably insist that Take Me Along, this fall's Agassiz musical, is as American as apple pie. The show has all the credentials: a fourth-of-July setting, young lovers making a marriage pact under a full New England moon, parades, red-white-and-blue razzmatazz, you name it. But despite all that, don't be tricked: Take Me Along is as American as Jack Daniels booze-and all the better for it.

The booze is in the show at Agassiz thanks to one man. Eugene O'Neill, whose one comedy, Ah Wilderness, is the show's source. While his play is essentially the story of two couples-one old, one young-who slowly but surely find happiness one Independence Day weekend in pre-World War I Centreville, Connecticut, O'Neill could not leave it that simple or that cute. Instead, he gives us a hero who is a good-natured but pathetic drunk and a heroine who is a lonely schoolteacher. All ends happily in the end, but there is a lot of sorrow along the way.

Joseph Stein and Robert Russell, the authors of Take Me Along's book, have not shortchanged their musical of this sorrow. They have written a stunning, if not perfect, musical comedy book. As the script weaves gracefully around Bob Merrill's songs, the show remains wittily upbeat, all the while quietly asserting the downbeat aspects of the characters.

And, for most of the time, the Grant-in-Aid production does this rather obscure musical proud. George Birnbaum, the director, who missed the boat somewhat with his Damn Yankees last spring, seems to have found himself this time around. His staging has clearly been well thought out: the comic elements are never punched: the show's silken melancholy is handled with exquisite grace.

Birnbaum is helped tremendously by the sets (unaccredited in the program), which are both atmospheric and serviceable. (The show really moves; it is the first time I have been out of an Agassiz musical by eleven o'clock.) Sara Linnie Slocum's lighting and Gail Steketee's costumes also contribute much to the production's dreamlike, hangover mood.

ONLY two elements of this Take Me Along sabotage what would have been a complete victory for the director-the choreography and the orchestra. The musical has two production numbers-a picnic celebration in Act One and a liquor-induced dream sequence in Act Two. Both worked in the original production; neither do in this one. The musical staging devised by Robert Harlow and Joanne Ruskin is, in the first case, routine, and, in the second, self-indulgent.

But the pseudo-artsiness of the dream sequence is nothing in annoyance value compared to the performance of Michael Murphy's pit band. The musicians are seldom together, often out of tune, and usually spiritless. Conductor Murphy has little sense of tempo, and Philip Lang's nicely-orchestrated overture takes on a dirgelike quality that tends to make overture-lovers like myself cringe. (Note to Mr. Birnbaum: these people in the band are your enemies! Take a whip to them soon.)

The orchestra's malevolence is especially unfortunate in light of the show's score, which is a good one. But, since the singers are so fine, the damage is not as bad as it might be. Carol Simon, as Lilly, the spinster school teacher, has the best musical material of the evening-two ballads ("We're Home" and "If You Promise Me a Rose") in which she expresses her domestic hopes for her ne'er-do-well would-be beau Sid. The songs are pure artlessness carried to the level of high musical-comedy art. The melodic lines are as sweet as an innocent kiss and the lyrics ("Both Sid and me/ Like Company/ So if You're free/ We're home...") are as plain as the heroine and, for that reason, just as affecting. I only hope that Miss Simon drops a few stagey mannerisms (particularly a tendency to shoot her eyes what looks like two inches out of their sockets) that contribute nothing to her performance.

As her unsteady beau, Nat, Bob Noonoo has the evening's liveliest songs-and Noonoo brings them off with spirit. Whether he is laughing it up with the boys or merely stating his carnets unfulfilled intention to his ever-patient Lilly, Noonoo always remains pitifully earnest and credible. Burlesque in this role would be a tragedy, and Noonoo happily avoids the temptation to ham like the plague.

It is Noonoo and Terry Emerson (as the town's humanistic newspaper editor) who have the privilege of rendering the show's title song, a straw-hat-and-strut number. Kicking up their feet, slapping each other's backs, winking away as if they would never see unhappiness again, Noonoo and Emerson make the song's nostalgic electricity crawl right up the audience's collective spinal cord.

The rest of the principals are great, too. Adorable Eleanor Lindsay is nothing less than adorable as Emerson's wife. And, in an extraordinary stroke of casting genius, Birnbaum has placed Josh Rubins, of all people, in the role of Richard, Sid's teenage nephew who learns the joys of love and drink during the play's course. The part has a lot of laughs, but Rubins never milks them. He is splendid, and so is Sheila Hickey as his intended.

SO, YOUVE wondered, why haven't you heard of Take Me Along before? The answer lies in the facts of the original 1958 production. The show's producer at that time was none other than David Merrick, who then, as now, conceived of musicals as a kind of vaudeville show tailored for big stars. In Take Me Along's case, Merrick's original choice of a star was Anthony Perkins (in the role of Richard). Perkins, however, took another offer (Frank Loesser's Greenwillow), and Jackie Gleason was hired to star instead, in the role of Sid.

The show was then redesigned to Gleason's order. The title song, originally a ballad for Richard, was changed to a superfluous (if nice) rouser that Gleason could handle. A weak director was hired and the libretto's somber tinge was submerged in fireworks. The show ran for a year, but had another producer (such as Hal Prince, whose West Side Story had revolutionized the Broadway musical the year before) besides Merrick done it. Take Me Along's life would surely have been much longer. (It is interesting to note that co-author Stein went on to write two great serious musicals, Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba, for Prince.)

But unlike Merrick, George Birnbaum has had the sense-and the guts-to rely on the booze in Take Me Along and not the pizzazz. Isn't it nice to know that there's a director around here with more integrity than Broadway's most successful showman?

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