Jimmy Brewer (center) and the cast of ‘The Flamingo Kid.’ (Photo: T. Charles Erickson.)
Nostalgia often makes for compelling musical theater. The early 1960s offers dramatic juggernauts ranging from Friendship 7’s earth orbit and the Cuban Missile Crisis to the publishing of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique. These events smartly color The Flamingo Kid, playing through June 9 at Hartford Stage, but with so many crayons in the box, this world premiere new musical occasionally goes outside the lines.
Movie buffs will remember the 1984 film version starring Matt Dillon and directed by Garry Marshall, but the film underplayed an important piece of historical accuracy. The El Flamingo was one of many beach clubs that catered to “upwardly-mobile Jews” (as described by the musical’s book writer Robert L. Freedman) looking for sand and sea rather than the wooded enclaves of the Catskills. The American Dream loomed as the economic divide separated the haves from the have-nots.
The Flamingo Kid kicks into gear when Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) bails on an office job his plumber father Arthur (Adam Heller) secured for him, choosing instead to work as a car attendant and eventually a cabana boy at the famed club. It’s here that he experiences his first romance with Karla (Samantha Massell), a Cali girl who’s been off-loaded by her disinterested parents to spend the summer with relatives. Jeffrey also gets a taste of the rich life when her uncle Phil (an appropriately smarmy Marc Kudisch, Hand to God) takes the boy under his wing.
Director Darko Tresnjak (Anastasia), who departs Hartford Stage as Artistic Director after eight seasons, deftly manages a joyously character-driven cast of 25 as the three-pronged plot unfolds. But Freedman’s book veers in too many directions to gain traction (in spite of the multiple vintage cars showcased among scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s vibrant midcentury sets). The emotional heft resides in the father-son relationship, while a plotline involving Phil and a fixed gin game that even a rookie card player could sniff out enables Jeffrey to prove his worth.
At this stage of the musical’s development, Jeffrey’s summer fling feels obligatory rather than organic. Brewer’s Jeffrey is charmingly unpolished, a kid who’s finding his way in a world that’s testing his values at every angle. But there’s little in Freedman’s book to indicate why he falls for Karla, except that he goes “ga-ga at the sight of her” in a two-piece swimsuit. It is 1963, after all.
It’s unlikely that younger audiences will give a second thought to the bikini, but it’s part of another narrative trying to find its place in The Flamingo Kid — that of female empowerment. We see this unfold with Jeffrey’s mom (Liz Larsen, Beautiful – The Carol King Musical) who plays second fiddle until, in the midst of an argument with her husband about how to deal with Jeffrey’s behavior, exclaims, “It’s my house, too, you know. My stove…my fridge…and my son. You seem to forget that!” Phil’s wife, Phyllis (a deliciously vixenous Leslie Margherita), bored with beach club life and her two-timing husband, also hits her limit, bemoaning the price she paid for an unwanted pregnancy in Act Two’s “The Cookie Crumbles.”
Scott Frankel’s music echoes the easy sounds of the early 60s (think The Lettermen) with a splash of Broadway flair and terrific vocal arrangements that showcase tight three-part harmonies. Choreographer Denis Jones (Tootsie) imbues the ensemble of mostly singer-actors with easy-to-executive, personality-driven movement, though it’s a treat to see Margherita kicks up her heels with the club’s dance teacher (Omar Lopez-Cepero).
The Flamingo Kid, much like A Bronx Tale (from Broadway’s 2016-17 season and now touring nationally), has plenty of stories to tell. But like its lead character, has a bit of growing up to do before moving out of its Hartford home.
The Flamingo Kid
50 Church Street, Hartford, CT
Through June 15
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.