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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Human Comedy
By Elyse Sommer
William Saroyan's The Human Comedy was written in 1943 at the height of a war that united rather than divided the country. The coming-of-age tale of Homer Macauley, a telegraph messenger who becomes a witness to the sorrows and joys of a small California town during World War II, began life as popular a screenplay (you may remember Mickey Rooney in the role) and was then turned into an equally well received novella.
This homespun, ultra patriotic tale of a close knit community that becomes even more tightly bonded by the war may not seem to be the stuff to appeal to Galt MacDermot best known for the 60s musical Hair -- but MacDermot's idiom, like Saroyan's, fits an epic American landscape. Hair's pro-love, anti-war hippies are ultimately not all that different from the patriotic citizens of Saroyan's Ithaca, California. Hair's "Tribe" may be flag burners rather than flag wavers, but they too represent a tightly bonded community made even closer by a war.
Given the parallel of the two very different wars as community strengtheners, it's easy to see The Human Comedy's appeal to McDermot. It provided him and his frequent collaborator, William Dumaresq, with ample opportunity to musicalize Saroyan's uplifting saga with songs in a cornucopia of American musical styles -- pop, rock, gospel and musical theater ballads.
MacDermot and Dumaresq's sung-through vignettes are, like Porgy and Bess, best defined as an American folk opera -- albeit one that despite positive reviews only had a brief run at New York's Public Theater and an even briefer stint on Broadway. The absence of dialogue and the opera tag -- as well as an oratorio style staging (the absence of a musical's usual colorful scenery and choreography) no doubt helped to relegate The Human Comedy to the status of "worthy flop." The critical praise brought a cast recording but no further productions -- which makes the current Barrington Stage revival something quite special.
As a rule, a failed show is like a fallen soufflé. Once it collapses, there's no way to make it rise again. But Juliane Boyd, the Berkshires' own theatrical Julia Childs, has performed a small miracle with her Barrington Stage Company's long overdue resuscitation of this neglected musical. Without trying to fix basic flaws -- somewhat under-developed, over- idealized characters and lyrics that at times smack of Hallmark sentiments and strive a little too hard to rhyme -- Boyd has given her production the visual snap, crackle and pop it needs to be --yes, a folk opera -- but a marvelously entertaining and moving piece of musical theater. As usual, she has assembled an outstanding cast of powerhouse singers, with the acting chops to bring the characters to life and make you wish you could walk out with a cast recording of the many standout songs that are the true stars of this musical.
Debby Boone is probably the best known cast member and an ideal choice to play the cynosure figure, Kate Macauley, whose husband's death left her struggling to keep her family together. With the eldest son Marcus (Heath Calvert, the tall, dark handsome and gifted Calver also doubles as the ghostly senior Macauley) in the Army, his younger brother Homer (the endearing Booby List) gets a job as a telegram messenger. Teen-aged Bess (Morgan James) and her best friend Mary Arena (Megan Lewis) who's also brother Marcus's love interest, are adorable ingenues. The youngest Macauley, Ulysses (Eamon Foley, a little guy with an amazingly big voice), waves to the operator (Andre Garner in a small but impressive role) of the passing train when not begging his mother to explain why their father had to die.
There are plenty of other characters swirling around the Macauleys, all star-making roles: Homer's bosses, Spangler (Doug Kreeger, as charming and vocally strong a leading man as he was a creepy killer in Thrill Me, a musical about Leopold & Loeb) and Grogan (Donald Grody) the white-haired telegraph machine operator . . . Tobey (Adam Sansiveri), Marcus's orphaned army buddy. . . Spangler's glamorous lady-in-red lady love, Diana Steed (Molly Sorohan). . . and a somewhat mysterious and symbolic one-woman chorus (Cheryl Freeman a super-dynamic singer who also plays prim school teacher). All these characters meld fluidly into the full ensemble numbers.
With the playing area extended over what's usually the Boland Theatre's orchestra pit, and Darren R. Cohen's band tucked upstage (at first ingeniously hidden behind a giant California license plate "curtain"), Boyd has given herself plenty of room to get the entire cast on stage for some of the bigger production numbers (spiffied up with somersaults and peppy Lindy Hops by choreographer Lara Teeter).
Karl Eigsti's set efficiently accommodates the various solos, duets and group tableaus. There's even a realistic railroad crossing, complete with flashing lights. Roll out sets for the Macauley home (including a blue star a World War II symbol displayed in homes with husbands, sons and brothers in uniform) and the telegraph office allow the vignettes to segue fluidly between the various locations. Alejo Vietti's costumes, especially the print and checked dresses, could have been pulled straight out of a 1940s clothes closet.
While in a perfect world, the renovations of Barrington's new home in Pittsfield would have been complete in time to mount this stylish production there rather than in their temporary home. The Boland Theatre is a wonderful space, with stadium seating to insure good sight lines wherever you sit, but its acoustics may be partially to blame for the at times over-amplified sound.
The acoustical problems notwithstanding, this diverse, emotion stirring and always melodic score is a treat for any musical theater lover. And the actors are engaging enough for you to emotionally buy into this Norman Rockwell-ish slice of Americana where a true community spirit prevailed and made heartbreak bearable. It's a lovely show, sad but bright and fun enough to recommend as a family musical (though I wouldn't recommend it for kids under ten).
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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