Chelsea Packard is a lovely woman with a big singing voice, and also the best reason to go see the musical version of “Summer of ’42” at Bucks County Playhouse. In the coming-of-age story, she plays the young woman whose very sight charms a 15-year-old boy into a hormonal frenzy.And really, she does okay with guys in their ’60s in the audience, too.
Packard takes full control whenever she’s on stage, with a presence that’s natural and commanding. She also sings in some of the best songs of the way-too-many in the show, whose music by David Kirshenbaum has lots of generic swells and tinkly piano backgrounds, yet also many clever lyrics. The actor-playwright Hunter Foster wrote the book for the musical, and directs it here with a first act that ambles when it needs to stride and a second act that steadies the pace.
You may remember “Summer of ’42” as a coming-of-age movie that was much loved in screenwriter Herman Raucher’s sweet and super-nostalgic telling in 1971, or possibly as Raucher’s novel that he wrote after the screenplay. The novel became a best-seller during the movie’s release.
Although Foster’s book for the musical uses much of the key dialogue in the movie – as I remember it — the musical doesn’t have the same gentle, even fragile, quality in its storytelling. Like the film, it traces the summer vacations of three boys on a New England island at a time when America was off to war (represented in the show by a soldier, played by Ben Mayne).
But the focus on stage is so heavily weighted toward the sole thing on the boys’ minds – losing their virginity – that the musical wobbles between cute and tacky, and sometimes rolls toward icky. An example: After a lot of teenage angst and talk about sex, a song late in the show about the sunrise meeting the ocean hits us out of, well, the blue. And even though Chelsea Packard was singing it beautifully I couldn’t help considering about never again going to the Shore.
Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault designed an impressive set, a part of which rotates to reveal the interior of a home, but someone insisted on a background sky with stars that don’t twinkle, but blink. Whenever it’s supposed to be nighttime, they go repeatedly on and off, the visual equivalents of dripping faucets. On Friday night, when I attended, Ed Chapman’s clear sound design was interrupted by dead spots, and the beginning of an important off-stage narrative at the show’s end went unheard.
There are several good moments in the production, and a few of them come without the benefit of Chelsea Packard. Scenes with the boys (Chris McCarrell, endearing as the lead, plus F. Michael Haynie and Joey Dippel) trying to score dates (Alyssa Gagarin, Bailey Buntain and Betsy Hogg), then trying to score at the movies, are solid. So is a cleverly staged scene at the market, where the grocer (William Youmans) keeps the condoms hidden behind the counter. In a show with nostalgic references, that’s an entire scene that seems far off, indeed._”Summer of ’42” runs through August 11 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main St., New Hope. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.