It’s become standard to say that Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is the light, daydreamy side of his nightmare family drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night — and while that formulation will do, it isn’t hard to discern the dark undercurrents in Wilderness! The subject of alcoholism is treated with punishing detail, especially in the scene where an uncle comes home drunk from a Fourth of July picnic and his family tries to laugh at his jokes. There are also some hairline cracks in the central “idyllic” Mom and Dad marriage, treated with a fond, glancing touch that somehow makes the problems of this family more troubling than they would be if they were handled with even a dash of O’Neill’s typically bold style. Ah, Wilderness! is an odd man out in O’Neill’s work, but an excellent production of it always reveals something new about its characters. Take Me Along, at the Irish Repertory Theater, is billed as “The Musical Version” of the O’Neill play, with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. But there was an earlier musical version of Ah, Wilderness! called Summer Holiday, made as a film by Rouben Mamoulian in 1948 and starring Mickey Rooney, Walter Huston and Frank Morgan. Mamoulian’s Summer Holiday captures everything worth cherishing in the play, and it does so while adding musical numbers that seem to arise naturally out of the story. Characters will start talking and ease into and out of song, rhyming couplets with a charming sort of whimsicality that suits the parallel universe vibe of Wilderness; and the cast could scarcely be improved upon. It remains perhaps the best version of this material.
Unfortunately, Bob Merrill is the songwriter who gave us such 50s novelty-tune horrors as Patti Page’s inescapable ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ He was also the man who had Barbra Streisand first reflect on how “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” and that was his finest hour, as lyricist of Funny Girl, in collaboration with Jule Stein. A Slate magazine piece on Merrill half-jokingly posited him as the worst songwriter of all time. The songs he wrote for Take Me Along aren’t bad in any objectionable way, as some of his other work is, but they sound as if they were written too quickly, with easy rhymes and lazy melodies throughout. Though the songs are all duds, director Charlotte Moore has staged many
of them in fresh, inventive ways, specifically the tune that introduces drunkard Uncle Sid (Don Stephenson), called ‘Sid, Ol’ Kid’, which is a textbook case of effectively selling a song that shouldn’t be sold at all.
The evening isn’t a total loss because of the fine work of Beth Glover as patient, quietly crumbling Aunt Lily, who has been waiting for years for ne’er-do-well Sid to marry her. With her sad eyes, her still hopeful and pretty face, and her lush soprano voice, Glover takes each of her songs and makes them lingering, deeply felt dramas of loss, regret and determination; she and the likable, adenoidal Stephenson are the only ones who find the heart of the original O’Neill play under the barnacles of Merrill’s dull music and lyrics. Surely it would have been better to do Summer Holiday on stage instead of this Merrill relic. According to Merrill’s bio, this isn’t the only O’Neill play that he’s musicalized; he seems to have done a musical version of Anna Christie called New Girl in Town. His Take Me Along must be better than that sounds, but that’s not saying much.