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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

The Human Comedy

You must remember always to give
. . . You must give to everyone you have known

If you give to a thief, he can't steal from you,
And then he's no longer a thief.
--- from "Remember Always Give" sung by Mrs. Macauley (Debby Boone).

Eamon Foley   & Debby Boone Molly Sorohan &  Doug KreegerMegan Lewis &  Morgan James
Scenes from The Human Comedy-- from left to right: Eamon Foley as Ulysses Macauley & Debby Boone as his mom; Doug Kreeger as telegraph office manager Spangler and Molly Sorohan as his beloved, Diana Steed; Megan Lewis as Mary Arena & Morgan James as Bess Macauley.
(Photos by Kevin Sprague)

Cranwell Resort

The Porches Inn

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).

Music: Galt MacDermot
Libretto: William Dumaresq
From William Saroyan's The Human Comedy
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Choreography by Lara Teeter
Musical Direction by Darren R. Cohen.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Trainman -- Andre Garner
Ulysses Macauley -- Eamon Foley
Mrs. Kate Macauley -- Debby Boone
Homer Macauley -- Bobby List
Bess Macauley -- Morgan James
Helen -- Kiera O'Neil
Miss Hicks/Beautiful Music -- Cheryl Freeman
Spangler -- Doug Kreeger
Mr. Grogan -- Donald Grody
Mary Arena -- Megan Lewis
Mexican Woman -- Kimberly Cuellar
Thief -- Colin Cunliffe
Matthew/Marcus Macauley -- Heath Calvert
Tobey -- Adam Sansiveri
Diana Steed -- Molly Sorohan
Ensemble-- Lori Brooke Cohan, Colin Cunliffe, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Robb Sherman
Set Design: Karl Eigsti
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Designer: Scott Pinkney
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Orchestra: Piano/Conductor -- Darren R. Cohen; Assistant Musical Director/Keyboards --Brian Usifer; Percussion -- Dennis Arcano; Trombone -- Timothy Atherton; Violin -- Edmund Bagnell; Bass -- Jenny Hersch; Reeds -- Bruce Krasin; Guitar --Jake Siberon; Trumpet --Jeff Stevens
Running Time: 2 hours, plus one intermission.
Barrington Stage Stage at Boland Theatre, Koussevitzky Arts Center, Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield
From June 22 to July 15, 2006; opening June 29th
Wed to Sun 7:30 pm; Sun, 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at May 30th matinee performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • In a Little Town in California / Entire Company

  • Hi Ya, Kid / Trainman and Ulysses

  • We're a Little Family/ Mrs. Macauley, Homer, Ulysses, Bess & Company

  • The Assyrians / Helen, Miss Hicks and Company
  • Noses / Homer and Company

  • Fourteen Words Collect / Spangler, Mr. Grogan and Customer
  • I Can Carry A Tune / Homer and Company
  • Happy Birthday / Homer and Company
  • Happy Anniversary /Homer, Spangler, Mr. Grogan and Company
  • I Think The Kid Will Do / Mr.Grogan, Spangler
  • Beautiful Music / Beautiful Music and Entire Company
  • Coconut Cream Pie/ Mr.Grogan and Homer
  • When I Am Lost/ Homer, Beautiful Music and Company

  • I Let Him Kiss Me Once/Killed In Action/ Bess, Mary Arena, Homer, Mexican Woman and Company

  • Daddy Will Not Come/Death Is
  • Not an Easy Thing / Ulysses and Mrs. Macauley
  • The Birds In The Sky/ Bess and Mary Arena
  • Remember Always To Give/ Mrs. Macauley
  • Long Past Sunset / Matthew Macauley and Company
  • Don't Tell Me /Mary Arena, Marcus, the Macauley Family and Company

  • You Want to Go to Corbett's/ Spangler and Mr.Grogan
  • The Fourth Telegram / Spangler and Mr.Grogan
  • Give Me The Money / Thief and Spangler
  • We're Fighting A War / Company

  • Everything Is Changed / Homer and Mrs. Macauley
  • The World Is Full of Loneliness /Mrs. Macauley and Company
  • Hi Ya, Kid (Reprise)/ Trainman and Ulysses
  • a
Act Two
  • How I Love/Soldiers
  • Everlasting / Tobey and Soldiers
  • An Orphan I Am /Tobey
  • I'll Tell You / Marcus

  • MaryArena / Girls
  • I Wish ! Were A Man / Mary Arena

  • Marcus, My friend / Tobey
  • My Sister Bess/ Marcus

  • I've Known a Lot of Guys / Diana Steed and Girls
  • Diana / Spangler

  • Dear Brother Homer / Homer, Marcus and Company
  • The Birds (reprise) / Diana Steed and Spangler
  • Slowly the Reality /Company
  • Death Is Not an Easy Thing (reprise) / Mrs. Macauley

  • Mr. Grogan, Wake Up/ Homer and Spangler

  • WhatAm I Supposed to Do? /Homer and Spangler

  • HOME
  • I'm Home / Tobey
  • zo I'll Always Love You/ Mary Arena, Bess, Mrs. Macauley & Company
  • Long Past Sunset /Mrs. Macauley and Company
  • Hi Ya, Kid (Reprise)/ Trainman, Ulysses and Company

  • BOWS
  • Fathers and Mothers / Entire Company
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