NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - George Street Playhouse's first production in the newly opened, $172 million New Brunswick Performing Arts Center - centered on a preteen Jewish boy who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a star baseball player in 1940s Brooklyn - has chutzpah and heart.
Friday was opening night for "Last Days of Summer" and the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater stage was as warm as an old-time flannel baseball uniform.
Although the story of redemption and approbation directed by Tony Award-nominee Jeff Calhoun and based on Steve Kluger's novel feels familiar - think the schmaltz of Neil Simon or the charm of "Damn Yankees" - it stands apart because of, among other things, co-star Julian Emile Lerner.
Lerner, all 4-foot-something of him, plays Joey Margolis, a kid who needs someone to stand with him at his bar mitzvah since his father has left the family.
Margolis (Gavroche in the National Broadway Tour of "Les Miserables") sings, dances and, at one point, literally tumbles across the stage.
There's a charming little brother-big brother chemistry the develops between Lerner and Bobby Conte Thornton ("A Bronx Tale"), who plays the irascible Charlie Banks. It's sealed in song by numbers such as "That'll Be You and Me" and "Who Knows You Better Than I Do?" (Kluger, who was raised on Broadway show soundtracks, wrote the lyrics to "Last Days'" 18 numbers.)
As if "Last Day of Summer" doesn't have enough going for it, Teal Wicks, her voice and her sequined dress threaten to steal the show. Wicks ("The Cher Show," "Finding Neverland") plays starlet Hazel Mackay, who is all haughty and haute couture but just may be an unlikely ally to Joey.
Beowulf Boritt's sets designs are elegant and understated and seamlessly move the story from cabaret stage to baseball clubhouse to train station.
"Last Days of Summer" runs through Nov. 10 at George Street Playhouse, After that, Kluger told TAPinto New Brunswick that he hopes the show proves commercial enough for Broadway, where trends sometimes follow 60-foot gorillas ("King Kong"), web-slinging superheroes ("Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark") or whatever else is trendy at the time.
If his story of baseball and brotherhood strikes out on Broadway, then Kluger said he would love to see it tour nationally. That way, to paraphrase a song title from the show, you'll never have to say goodbye.