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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Swimming With Watermelons
The Berkshire season nears its midpoint with more notable revivals than freshly minted plays. Happily, there are exceptions. Early on in the season there was Civil Union, a timely and provocative drama at the Old Castle Theater in Vermont (linked below). Now the always inventive and interesting Music-Theatre Group has brought a delightful new play with music to the Arts Center of Simon's Rock College.
The bad news about Swimming With Watermelons is that its performance schedule is limited to three long weekends (with this review being written in the middle of the run). The good news is that husband and wife collaborators Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner (best known for Running Man and the Off-Broadway hit, The Donkey Show in which three of the Swimming cast initially appeared) have achieved something rare and heartening: a thoroughly enjoyable, fun theater piece that explores meaningful themes and is staged with wit and originality. With four versatile and talented members of Project 400 portraying seven endearing and well-developed male and female characters it adds up to a sweet as a ripe watermelon ninety minutes -- a genuine summer 2001 highlight.
Essentially, Swimming With Watermelons is a triple tiered love story of six young people struggling to grow and change to live happily ever (if not forever) after. The setting is Japan during the World War II American occupation. The story of the main couple, a bright Japanese girl named Tomoko (Emily Hellström) and a loveable GI and theatrical impresario named George Innes (Rachel Benbow Murdy) is modeled after the post war romance of Diane Paulus's own Japanese mother and GI father.
As the play's gentle and sensitive narrator, Hellström is the only one of the four-member cast who doesn't have a double role. Murdy segues smoothly from her lover, the roly-poly George, to Lorraine Iverson a West Virginia gal who has been raised on the principle that the way to keep a man happy is through his stomach. Her actions upon discovering that her husband Grant (Anna Wilson) has been lured by the siren song of a seductive Pan Pan girl named Yuki (Jordin Ruderman) almost destroy the Tomoko-George romance.
When not prancing across the stage seductively, Wilson does hilarious double duty as the Yvonne Christianson, a brainy and buxom army base librarian whose last name turns out to be an apt metaphor for the problem threatening her romance with a Jewish journalist named Ira Goldstein (Ruderman-- donning another amusing persona). When Yvonne and Ira plan their wedding and she lists her family members who all have very German names, Ira has a musical nightmare that may lack the glitz of The Producers but is as funny as that show' lavish "Springtime For Hitler" number.
The dual casting reinforces the underlying message of tolerance. Though a nontraditional relationship like that of Tomoko and George no longer require heroic courage, we still have a long way to go to see people as people, even if they are different from those with whom we grew up.
George's musical Nazi nightmare is just one example of the integration of popular songs of the period (as well as some from the '20s and '30s). Paulus and Weiner ingeniously have the actors join in with Judy Garland, Hank Williams and other recording stars just as the lyrics seem written specifically for the situation at hand. When Grant picks up Yuki at the railroad station, "Temptation" becomes the accompaniment for a sizzling tango number. When Lorraine leads a meeting of GI wives against fraternization, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" becomes a "Remember Pearl Harbor" anthem. "Night and Day," "Stormy Weather" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" are just some of the other sweetly familiar songs that tie Swimming to the best tradition of musical theater.
Michael Chybowski's lighting adds to the Karaoke flavor. The presentational style of narration works beautifully with Myung Hee Cho's unfussy set design which evokes a number of locations. There's one particularly beautiful scene in which Tomoko and George swim in an ocean of ribbons manipulated by two of the KOKEN. Costume designer Ilona Somogyi aptly supports the actors' numerous personality changes.
Unless I miss my guess, this big-hearted, small-scale musical will have a life after Simon's Rock. Wherever it goes I hope it will continue just as it is -- same clever but simple staging, same versatile quartet of thespians. The Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre where Running Man premiered before making a stop in the Berkshires last summer (see link below), would be an ideal New York stopover on what should be a long journey.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED
The Donkey Show a long-runing Paulus-Weiner hit
End of the World, another MTG show that made a brief visit to the Berkshires.