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The Happy Time

1968 Kander and Ebb musical, directed by Brother Augustine Towey

Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday in the Leary Theatre, Niagara University.

Admission is $15. Call 286-8622 or 852-5000

Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, near half-century partners in the creation of Broadway showtunes, have lofty standing among their songwriting peers. And with good reason.

Their resumes include the scores for "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Zorba" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," live concerts for Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra, plus words and music for movies and television. Their mantles boast many Tony, Emmy and Drama Desk awards.

Despite the fame, Kander and Ebb aren't household names - except perhaps in Niagara County, where Brother Augustine Towey's young Niagara University Theatre students have dusted off, spiffed up and given rather charming treatment to two of their lesser known musicals: "Steel Pier" (performed two seasons ago to much acclaim) and the recently opened "The Happy Time."

After a modest Broadway run in 1968, "The Happy Time" sputtered through a couple of revivals but hasn't been seen for a decade or two. This NU Theatre production, with Kander and Ebb's blessing, has reinstated several songs and restored text, prompting them to label this version "definitive."

The story is set in the 1920s when prodigal son Jacques Bonnard, a globetrotting photographer, returns to his sleepy birthplace of St. Pierre, Quebec, to breathe the air of home and brag a lot. And, as usual, he'll cause havoc between family members, particularly stern brother Philippe; his nephew, adolescent Bibi, and feisty old Grand Pere, who does his best with wink and wisdom to mediate arguments.

The family sings about Jacques' return with much apprehension: "He's Back," they croon, counting the days until he leaves again for, oh, Paris or London or some magical place he says he's been.

Impressionable Bibi loves his Uncle Jacques and this is the crux of the problem. The two go to the local dance hall, pinch a few derrieres and sip brandy, aided by Grand Pere, a lecher of the first rank. Uptight Philippe hits the roof and things get worse when Bibi, uncomfortable at home and misunderstood at school, becomes rebellious and suddenly a handful. Jacques gets blamed, of course. Then, one of Jacques' ex-girlfriends, the schoolmarm Laurie Manon, gets involved. Old sparks briefly flame but the nomad finally leaves; truly someone who can't go home again.

Kander and Ebb's words and music help tell the story with songs never heard outside of "The Happy Time," including the half-talk title tune, the poignant "I Don't Remember You," the raucous and fun "Life of the Party" (that would be Grand Pere), the vaudevillian "A Certain Girl" and the bittersweet "Seeing Things."

Brother Augustine's cast is large and typically fresh, scrubbed and energized. As Jacques, Damon Vanore narrates his own story, Maurice Chevalier-like, and is strong vocally and stage-sure. The porcelain ingenue from Amherst, Julie Burdick, with summer Artpark credits, is Laurie; Drew Burke, a Lewiston-Porter sophomore, is a surprise as Bibi, proving to be an adept song-and-dance man at a tender age.

Stealing the night is Niagara alum Paul Todaro, familiar to Buffalo theater audiences, anchoring his young colleagues with much polish and having a ball doing so as Grand Pere; his "Life of the Party" is a crowd pleaser.

"The Happy Time" could also be called "The Long Time," three hours of the battling Bonnards a bit much. But, seat-shifting aside, it's directed sagely by Brother Augustine. Terri Filips' choreography is lively and acrobatic, and there are fine ensemble performances by Matt Knight, Heather Adair, Kristen Nixon and a gaggle of schoolboys of all sizes and shapes.

The score is very listenable, the story slice-of-life, the cast talented, the direction wise; in sum, "The Happy Time" is, as advertised, delightful.

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