"Take Me Along," a horse-and-buggy of a musical, is back with us again at the Martin Beck, where it opened last night. Hardly a classic, it was no great shakes even in 1959, when it was pleasantly received, and if time can't be said to have tarnished it much, that's because it never shone too brightly to begin with.
Originally it boasted some star performers in key roles, but even that wasn't sufficient to radiate more than a gentle charm, and that charm was almost wholly due to the play, O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," on which Joseph Stein and Robert Russell based their book. Bob Merrill's songs seemed tuneful but far from striking, and the title song, which gained some popularity, was catchy but commonplace.
Except for the lack of star power in the revival, these comments still obtain. The dream ballet has been wisely discarded, and Merrill, while dropping a couple of songs, has added three new ones, including a barroom number called "If Jesus Don't Love Ya," orchestrated with a strong, propulsive beat echoing the "Big Spender" classic from "Sweet Charity," and a lively and engaging male ensemble piece, "In the Company of Men," that is the closest the evening comes to a show-stopper.
The overall performance, directed by Thomas Gruenwald with dance numbers by Dan Siretta, has a stock musical comedy jauntiness that is really only surmounted by Kurt Knudson's winning and knowing account of the bibulous Uncle Sid, the longtime admirer but guilt-ridden suitor of spinster Lily Miller. Lily herself is appealingly set forth and sung by Beth Howland, who does especially well with "I Get Embarrassed" and "We're Home."
Of course, "Ah, Wilderness" is essentially the story of Richard, the Millers' younger son, and of his achieving a kind of maturity over the Fourth of July weekend of 1906 in a small Connecticut town. Gary Landon Wright is at best a passable Richard. Robert Nichols, who plays Richard's father and editor of the local paper, and Betty Johnson, who is cast as his mother, are a pleasing pair, and Nichols' reflective number, "Staying Young," retains a sentimental appeal. In the relatively small role of Richard's stuffy older brother, a Yalie, Stephen McDonough, comes off well. The rest of the work - bit parts, ensemble dancing and singing - is ordinary.
James Leonard Joy's assortment of sliding pieces for the various scenes are workmanlike. David Toser's costumes are okay, for the most part, and Craig Miller's lighting has the requisite glow and nuance. Philip J. Lang's original orchestrations retain their old zip.
"Take Me Along" is a bland musical, and isn't it strange that a songwriter with Merrill's modest attainments should have been the man chosen to set to music two plays by our greatest playwright, this one and the earlier "New Girl in Town," drawn from "Anna Christie"?
It was a time when this country actually had a "good 5-cent cigar." It was a time of endless peace and increasing prosperity.
It was the halcyon summer of 1906 - the July 4 commemorated by Eugene O'Neill's comedy of an innocence mislaid, Ah, Wilderness!
About half-century after that solstice summer - in 1959, to be income-tax precise - Bob Merrill based his Broadway musical Take Me Along on O'Neill's play.
And now, about a further quarter-century into the life of the Republic, Take Me Along, in this season of our discontent, is being taken along for a second Broadway outing.
Twenty-five years ago when people created a Broadway musical they knew pretty much what were doing, and at least once in a while they knew pretty much how to do it.
There is this kind of confidence and authority to Take Me Along, which opened last night at the Martin Beck. It shimmers smooth with craft. No - they truly don't write musicals like this.
Not that Take Me Along is precisely a classic of its genre; it is simply a good-natured, well-conceived, immaculately tailored Broadway musical.
When it was new, hot, and fresh, back then, it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, and Robert Morse, and it ran for more than a year.
It won't do so well this time out - for one thing it hasn't got that stellar cast - but this stylish production, which originated at that tiny national treasury of our musical theater, Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, has a great deal of old-fashioned, conceivably out-fashioned, charm.
As it is a period piece - not merely the period of O'Neill's original play, but also a period piece even as a musical - it is important to place that period.
It was the time of the "book" musical. Since the blockbusting success of My Fair Lady three years earlier, the story of musicals had become their paramount consideration.
The successes (weep your heart out, 1985!) in the Broadway musical for 1959, in addition to Take Me Along, were Redhead, Destry Rides Again, Fiorello!, and, above all, Gypsy and The Sound of Music - all of them strong book shows.
The book of Take Me Along follows the O'Neill fairly closely, but not that closely. O'Neill placed his emphasis on the young Richard, whose idealized wish-fulfillment adolescence the play celebrates.
The writers of the musical, Joseph Stein and Robert Russell, on the other hand, find their principal inspiration in the thwarted, autumnal love affair between O'Neill's tipsy Uncle Sid and the spinster Aunt Lily, and even conspire to give the pair the final send-off of a happy ending.
Despite such expediency, the musical is pretty faithful to the spirit of the original, and, most significantly, to its evocation of some golden age that only existed in the communal imagination of legend.
It is helped here by Merrill's music and lyrics. In some numbers - for example, Oh, Please - the sadly diluted influence of the talk-song, introduced by Lerner and Loewe for My Fair Lady, is a tad too obvious.
Yet when Merrill is at his best, in recalling turn-of-the-century American vaudeville in such attractive routines as Sid, Ol' Kid or In the Company of Men, the show takes on a nice, soft-shoe-shuffle kind of bravado.
Thomas Gruenewald's staging is as benevolently low-keyed as the musical itself; flashy it isn't. James Leonard Joy's scenery, looking like book illustrations, slides in and out, on and off, with seeming anonymity yet pleasing effect, and David Toser's costumes catch the period without mocking it.
Even Dan Siretta's musical staging and choreography is mild-toned, with a chorus line of elderly gents doing much-applauded, geriatric high-kicks, or a bar-room scene full of smoke without fire.
The performances slide into the show as smoothly as the scenery: supremely competent, totally unshattering, perfectly effective.
Kurt Knudson as the bibulous Uncle Sid is no Jackie Gleason except in girth, but has his own gentler, avuncular charms; Robert Nichols makes a dandily bewildered figure of the unpatriarchal newspaper editor Nat Miller; and Beth Fowler is sweetness itself acidulated as the wallflower sister.
The young folk are led by a tremulous Taryn Grimes, and a splendidly ardent Gary Landon Wright as the Swinburne-spouting young Lochinvar of a hero.
All in all, Take Me Along is, also all in all, what it ever was, an evening of quiet pleasures and professional accomplishments.
Some people will possibly try to suggest that this is a summer-stock style production adapted to a Broadway opportunity. But it is more than that; it is a classic realization of a musical from a classic period that is not itself quite a classic.
But its comic geniality, cheerful music, and unabashed stylishness could still warm kind hearts this chilly Broadway season.
Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, ''Ah, Wilderness!'', is a nostalgic reverie about the happy childhood its author never had. ''Take Me Along,'' the 1959 musical comedy adapted from it, can make one feel nostalgic for a Broadway that no longer exists. This show typifies the kind of solid book musical - unfailingly professional and tuneful, if never brilliant - that used to be the bread-and-butter of the commercial New York theater. Even in its time, it wasn't a smash hit, but it was sturdy enough to run a year alongside such more formidable musicals of the 1959-60 season as ''The Sound of Music,'' ''Fiorello!'' and ''Bye, Bye Birdie.''
One wants to believe there is still enough life in ''Take Me Along'' to cheer audiences now - especially in a current Broadway season that has yet to field a worthwhile new musical of its own. But if that life is there, it has not been sufficiently tapped by the revival that has arrived at the Martin Beck via Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. For the first few minutes it's possible to entertain higher expectations: Bob Merrill's charming score, as orchestrated by Philip J. Lang, makes for a dandy overture. Then the curtain rises on a production that is less redolent of Broadway past or present than of old-time touring companies.
The first tip-offs are the overripe chorus and undernourished scenery. The chorus, gathered in all its starched finery to celebrate Independence Day of 1906, is too thin in ranks, too rigidly posed and too determinedly peppy; the grinning faces are not sunny but saccharine. James Leonard Joy's settings, inexactly lighted by Craig Miller, are nondescript. While ''Take Me Along'' need hardly be produced at the budget of ''42d Street,'' at least the limited funds might be spent with some imagination. The dominant color of Mr. Joy's turn-of-the-century Centerville, Conn., is the aquamarine of contemporary Darien's swimming pools.
Some hope returns when we meet the principal players. Kurt Knudson, Beth Fowler and Robert Nichols - all capable Broadway hands - take the roles played 25 years ago by Jackie Gleason, Eileen Herlie and Walter Pidgeon. Mr. Knudson cuts the right, rotund figure as Sid Davis, the small town's hard-drinking cutup and ne'er-do-well, and Miss Fowler is handsomely prim as Lily, the spinster schoolteacher who will marry Sid when and if he ever reforms. The kindly, silver-haired Mr. Nichols is especially genial as Nat Miller, the progressive newspaper editor who prides himself, as a piquant song has it, on ''staying young.'' Even so, something is lacking. It probably wasn't happenstance that the 1959 ''Take Me Along'' was cast with stars; someone (maybe the original producer, David Merrick?) must have decided that the show required that extra luster. The leads at the Beck, however able, often act in the muted tones of understudies.
There's just not enough urgency to the frustrated middle-aged courtship of Sid and Lily or enough comic fizz to Sid's alcoholic braggadocio. The Joseph Stein-Robert Russell libretto, which is a faithful and economical rendering of its source, is further dulled by the complete miscasting of the other key role - Nat's wayward teen-age son, Richard. A sentimentalized portrait of O'Neill as a lovesick young poet, Richard is the real fulcrum of both ''Ah, Wilderness!'' and ''Take Me Along.'' Gary Landon Wright, the attractive and earnest juvenile who has the part here, suggests not a fledgling writer eager to sow his first intellectual and sexual oats but a future model for Ralph Lauren fashion spreads.
Mr. Wright does sing well - even when he misses the humorous point of ''I Would Die,'' Richard's self-martyring declaration of devotion to his neighborhood sweetheart. Indeed, this cast's firm voices generally capture the musical lilt more than the dramatic substance of the score's many likable numbers (three of which are new for this production). Mr. Merrill, who later wrote the songs for ''Carnival'' and the lyrics for ''Funny Girl,'' offers not only the rollicking title tune (a merry straw-hat-and-cane soft-shoe for Mr. Knudson and Mr. Nichols) but also a flood of tender ballads that dramatize the yearnings of O'Neill's innocent lovers. Many of the best belong to Miss Fowler's Lily, who rises above an overwrought comic turn (''I Get Embarrassed'') to bring a sweet, regret-tinged soprano to the homely domestic daydreams (''We're Home'') and sad disillusionments (''Promise Me a Rose'') that define her stalled romance with the irresponsible Sid.
It's typical of Thomas Gruenewald's direction, which aspires mainly to efficient traffic management, that Miss Fowler must deliver two successive Act I solos in the exact same center-stage position. Dan Siretta's choreography is of a predictable piece with the candied chorus that performs it: As soon as the men link arms for a mechanical Fourth-of- July picnic kickline, we forget all about O'Neill's halcyon summer of 1906 and realize that the summer-stock season of 1985 is already here.