The annual “Songbook” music revues at Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse are always pleasant holiday season entertainment, but this season the songfest has a new dimension as it celebrates the 100th birthday of Jim Buckley, the theater’s founder and artistic director.
The show, titled “September Song,” is designed around events in Buckley’s life, as he went from a star-struck kid in the New York theater district to a creative and celebrated designer of high-end store windows (which he called his “sidewalk theater”).
He continued to design as he created models and camouflage behind the scenes during World War II, then designed for Disneyland, television, stage and film. Thirty-six years ago he came full circle and founded his own theater, the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria.
The show also chronicles his romance and long marriage to the late “Lady O.” As the singers tell his story they illustrate it with familiar songs with appropriate lyrics.
As they wrote the show, musical director David Manion and director Viv Goff had a century of songs to choose from, and the narration touches on the history of the music as well as that of Buckley — referred to as J.B.
The cast is genial and diverse. Manion is the piano man with a warm, husky voice. Wayne Attoe is small, sprightly and animated, and Jim Conroy is tall and imposing, with a deep baritone. Laurelle Barnett has a soaring soprano, and Goff’s is sweet and sometimes plaintive.
The nearly 40 songs by such icons as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and others who wrote for the stage, will be familiar to many, especially those who have lived through some of that music history.
Looking for a song from 1912, the year J.B. was born, led the writers to “Be My Little Baby Bumblebee,” a cute opening for the whole cast. There are lighthearted stories, such as that of J.B. dressing in drag in a high school show to sing a Helen Morgan song from a stage play of the time. Conroy wears a wild blond wig and sings “My Man” in a falsetto voice.
There is a moment of audience interaction as Attoe sings “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” to a woman in the front row. The ensemble numbers are lively and fun, some sung in harmony and parts. “Swinging on a Star,” “Sunny Side of the Street,” and “You Do Something to Me” bring the cast together, and when they talk about J.B.’s work with Disneyland, they sing “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
There is plenty of romance as the story of J.B. and Olga unfolds and they miss each other as he travels to Europe during the war. Among the familiar love songs are “All the Things You Are,” by Barnett, “The Way You Look Tonight,” by Manion, “But Beautiful,” by Conroy, and “It Had to Be You,” by Attoe. Goff sings a torchy version of “Smile.”
On opening night, J.B. was sitting in the front row, as he usually does, and as the cast told of the passing of Olga, they brought him a microphone, which didn’t seem to work. He said he didn’t need it anyway, and he was right. In a strong, tuneful voice, he sang a touching Cole Porter song, “After You, Who?” It was the high point of the evening, and there were some teary eyes as the audience filed out for intermission.
During the second act the singers talked about the first time they met Buckley and sang an appropriate song. Manion told about applying for a piano and singing job at the Plough, and having a long conversation with J.B. He sang “Getting to Know You.” Barnett told of being “discovered” by J.B. when she was in a community show. She took Manion’s seat at the piano and played and sang a stirring rendition of “People” (who love people).
Attoe, Goff and Conroy took whimsical approaches to Buckley’s reputation for being gruff and intimidating. Attoe added some of his own words to “Dancing on the Ceiling” as he described his fearful dream of meeting J.B. for the first time. Goff talked about working for him and sang “Mean to Me,” and Conroy picked up a guitar and sang “Don’t Get Up.”
A reprise of “September Song” by the whole cast was the finale, and then the audience joined in for “Happy Birthday.”
This is a charming, heartfelt show, with a lot of classic music and a tribute to Buckley and his illustrious career which has wound down with him doing what he loves best at the Pewter Plough, now assisted by his son, James Lee Buckley.
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 31
Pewter Plough Playhouse,
824 Main St., Cambria
$20 to $25
927-3877 or www.pewterploughplayhouse.org