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A visit to Eugene O’Neill’s ideal childhood 

Another two delightful openings show the Shaw Festival on a roll with five winners out of five thus far. The musical may be imperfect, but it's a treasure. And the festival's first production by Eugene O'Neill is a pleasure indeed.

            Alisa Palmer's direction of the musical Pal Joey is perhaps a tad too wholesome, but we're lucky to see and hear the original show with John O'Hara's cynical book, Richard Rodgers' gorgeous, classic songs, and Lorenz Hart's brilliant, unlaundered lyrics. We all know "If They Asked Me, I Could Write A Book." But the popular lyrics to "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" cut out "...Until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep" and, "Horizontally speaking, he's at his very best."

            I wish Laurie Paton would be bolder and campier in emphasizing lines like "...words to get off his chest" and "because the laugh's on me" the way Vivienne Segal did in the 1952 revival. (She created the role in 1940.)

            Adam Brazier is also more boy-next-door than gigolo as Joey, but he's certainly handsome, and he sings and plays the role very well. So does Ms. Paton as Vera, the rich, glamorous woman who is keeping Joey, as they make very clear in the delicious song, "Den of Iniquity."

            In fact, everyone sings and dances well in this version, for which we can credit musical director Paul Sportelli and choreographer Amy Wright, two of the show's real stars. Top star, for me, is designer William Schmuck, whose sets are strikingly clever, and whose costumes are so gloriously satirical that the biggest laugh of the evening was the appearance of a chorus girl in his sunflower costume.

            A surprise claimant for rival star-stature is Shaw regular Patty Jamieson. She triumphantly delivers Rodgers and Hart's "Zip," the take-off on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's intellectual pretensions. It is so funny it knocks out even those who miss its dated references. While stripping and singing, Jamieson not only soars from prissily birdlike to full-throated raunchy, but also ends with a wild high note while sinking to the floor in a split. Her fellow artists in the opening night audience seemed as amazed as they were uproarious.

            Old pro Lorne Kennedy and Jennie L. Wright in comic roles, and Shannon McCaig as the closest thing to a sweet young heroine in this play, all provide solid support, as do all the fine singers and dancers. It probably should be darker, but this Pal Joey is bright fun in the theater.

O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! could be played more caustically too, but I don't think the playwright wanted it to be. The mean-spirited bartender and grasping bargirl, the hopeless love between prudish Aunt Lily and drunkard Uncle Sid, and young Richard's outbursts of social criticism lifted from his readings of Ibsen and Marx are all cited by those who want to see O'Neill's dour, tragic view in this, his only comedy.

            But O'Neill's letters about Ah, Wilderness and his affectionate, almost sentimental dedication of the play to critic George Jean Nathan indicate only nostalgia and a happy fantasy of the boyhood O'Neill wished for that "were paradise enow!"

            Joseph Ziegler directs with a deft comic tone that does not push the children's rambunctious bickering or Sid's drunken stumblings into slapstick exaggeration. His honestly sentimental approach doesn't permit young Richard and Muriel to get sappy nor the parents' mellow affection to seem soggy. It is pastry, not corn mush.

            Christina Poddubiuk's designs and Alan Brodie's lighting are appropriate and attractive. I would like, though, just once to see an Ah, Wilderness! or Long Day's Journey Into Night with a set that actually looks like the O'Neill family's house in Connecticut. That house is still intact, and it is described identically as the setting for both plays. The cliché is that Long Day's Journey Into Night presents the youth O'Neill actually had, and Ah, Wilderness! the one he wished he'd had.

            This is perhaps the ultimate American play about young manhood and first love. Richard may seem more 13 than 16 to modern playgoers, but this is 1906 in rural New England, when life was simpler and more innocent. The father, Nat, is a newspaper owner and editor. His extended household includes his wife Essie, his young son Tommy, daughter Mildred, college boy Arthur, teenaged Richard, Nat's sister Lily, and Essie's brother Sid.

            The impeccable performers include such overkill casting as master Shavian actor Michael Ball in the tiny role of a playboy salesman at the bar where Richard gets drunk and tempted. There is also a fine comic drunk scene by William Vickers as Uncle Sid and expected solid character work by Wendy Thatcher as Essie and Mary Haney as Lily. Jared Brown is a charming young Richard, more adolescent than young man. His father's "you're at that age" talk with him about sex is priceless.

            The father is absolutely the best reason to see this play. Norman Browning's unique delivery, a lovable grumpy growl, seems to work whatever the assignment. Here it is the dry hint of cognac that cuts and flavors the sweetness --- a wonderful example of homespun elegance.

            Browning's brilliance aside, this is a good, solid production, and with Ah Wilderness! that is enough. Somehow, all the undeniable decency of these people is never cloying. We are looking at a quintessentially American family on the fourth of July, with human faults exposed in almost every line of dialogue, and America's most powerfully tragic playwright filling it all with chuckles and love.

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and John O'Hara's Pal Joey, at the Royal George Theatre through October 30; Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!at the Court House Theatre through October 8. $20 to $77 ($14.67 to $56.49 US). 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com

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