ARTS & ENTERTAINMENTARTS & CULTURE

'Love's Old Sweet Song' at GTC Burbank

William SaroyanAnn HamiltonDeathWalter Huston

Good-natured optimism buoys the boozy comment of William Saroyan's canon, and "Love's Old Sweet Song" follows suit. In honor of the Saroyan centennial, the charming Syzygy Theatre Group revival of his rarely staged romantic allegory deftly wears its heartfelt topical point on its period sleeve.

First presented in 1940 with Jessie Royce Landis and Walter Huston, "Song" concerns wistful Ann Hamilton (the excellent McKerrin Kelly), a Bakersfield spinster whose life goes askew when eager Georgie Americanos (Michael Heshel) delivers a telegram. Its alleged author: Boston-born Barnaby Gaul, exulting over how he fell in love at first sight with Ann decades earlier.

Enter a traveling salesman (the marvelous Steve Marvel), who meets the specs even though he may not be the man whom Ann doesn't recall ever seeing in the first place. Their courtship underlines Saroyan's assault on numerous targets, including era politics, Time magazine's ascent and survival during the Depression.

That cues up the Yearlings, a huge Okie brood and Steinbeck parody. Headed by happy-go-lucky Cabot (the hilarious John Schumacher) and ever-pregnant Leona (an assured Jennifer Pennington), these jovial itinerants quickly appropriate Ann's domicile.

Rising complications leave Cabot presumed dead, "Barnaby" discredited and Ann's house on fire as Act 1 ends. Act 2 introduces Georgie's Greek grandfather (Jack Kandel) and champion wrestler father (the wonderful Chris Damiano). Because this is Saroyan, all satisfyingly resolves with a never-more-pertinent moral embedded in the hopeful final image.

There are flaws -- an over-episodic, scattershot plot, uneasy cultural attitudes and a playwright whose syrup-and-vinegar style can sound decidedly odd to modern ears. Yet director Martin Bedoian, a resourceful design team and the large, able cast give this populist fairy tale an unassuming, captivating sincerity. Avoiding condescension, which would boot the quirky idiom into cloying terrain, everyone involved exudes such conviction that a little-known curiosity becomes something special.

Nichols is a freelance writer.

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