Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2006
“The threads of misery and joy
Are woven fine.
Into a vast design,
When tragedy gives way to comedy.
Until you can’t discern
The line between them.”
– William Dumaresq
I cannot think of a show more wholesome and squeaky clean than The Human Comedy. When people speak about “American values” they are referring to veneration of God, family, community, and sacrifice embodied in this work.
But, Gail!” you are sputtering. “This was written by the guy who wrote Hair!”
Yes, the score is by Galt MacDermot, composer of Hair and the Tony Award-winning Two Gentlemen of Verona but it does not sound, look, or feel like either of those shows. Really the only common thread between those three shows is a strong anti-war sentiment, which makes itself as abundantly clear in this flag-waving, star-spangled opus as it does in the flag-burning, anti-establishment Hair.
While The Human Comedy is very, very American, it does not sound or play like conventional American musical theater. It is sung through, and was billed as a cantata and staged very sparely when it was first presented in New York City in 1984. There is no boy-meets-girl love story or comic relief. No tap dancing or scantily clad chorus girls. Instead The Human Comedy deals with the day-to-day issues of family, work, and community – the really tough stuff.
The story takes place in 1943 in the town of Ithaca, California, a little town in wine country “not famous for anything.” It is a show about community, but it centers on the MacCauley family: widowed mother Kate (Debby Boone), eldest son Marcus (Heath Calvert), a soldier fighting overseas, seventeen-year-old Bess (Morgan James), fourteen-year-old Homer (Bobby List), and little Ulysses (Eamon Foley). To help support the family now that Marcus is away at war, Homer gets a job as a telegraph boy, working with Spangler (Doug Kreeger) and Mr. Grogan (Donald Grody), delivering messages both happy and sad to his neighbors. Ulysses waves to every train that passes through town and peppers his mother with questions about everything from death to gophers. Marcus is engaged to his sister’s best friend Mary Arena (Megan Lewis), the girl next door. Spangler is engaged to the glamorous and wealthy Diana Steed (Molly Sorohan). Marcus’ best buddy in the service is Tobey (Adam Sanisveri) who was raised in an orphanage and envies Marcus his family and community roots.
The Human Comedy is based on a 1943 novel by Pulitzer Prize-wining playwright William Saroyan. Like much of Saroyan’s fiction, there are autobiographical aspects to this tale. Saroyan grew up fatherless in California wine country, one of four children. He worked as a telegraph messenger boy. He and his siblings spent time in an orphanage after their father’s death while there mother got herself back on her feet. Saroyan dedicated the novel to his mother, Takoohi Saroyan, who could not read English, saying “I have written it as simply as possible, with that blending of the severe and the light-hearted which is especially yours, and our family’s.”
MacDermot and librettist William Dumaresq’s adaptation is very, very faithful to Saroyan’s book, and very faithful to that “blending of the severe and the light-hearted.” Funny things happen, sad things happen. People sing songs about trains and noses and cocoanut cream pies. They also sing about death and love and faith.
Back in April, during an interview with Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of Barrington Stage and the director of this production, she told me how amazing it was that an original cast recording existed of The Human Comedy. She described the entire cast and orchestra gathering on a sound stage surrounding one microphone and singing the show straight through. That was it. One take, one microphone. She told me that story because I told her that I owned the OCR and had fallen in love with it at first hearing. In between that conversation and seeing the show last night, I listened again to the CD and was once again thrilled and moved by MacDermont’s music and Dumarseq’s words. Yes, the story has its saccharine moments, but it is ultimately so poignant and human that I fall for it every time.
My big concern about this production was not the material or Barrington Stage’s capability to stage it well, but the setting in the cavernous Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College. It is the largest performance space in the county, and it feels like it. Because my previous experiences with The Human Comedy were as intimate as me and a pair of headphones – a cast gathered around a single mike singing just for me – I couldn’t imagine this modest show in that big space.
You remember how you could blot the ink from a newspaper photo or comic strip on to a flattened piece of Silly Putty and then stretch the image? That’s what I felt Boyd had done to The Human Comedy to make it big enough to occupy the Boland. There is a big orchestra on stage, and a big cast, and a big set by Karl Eigsti including life-sized railroad crossing barriers (which I was amused to see were manually operated) and flashing lights. Everybody is AMPLIFIED! Lara Teeter’s frenetic choreography is big, big, big, with swing dancing girls tossed high in the air and handsome men performing one-armed cartwheels across the stage.
The combination of the enormous effort expended filling the big theater and bridging the wide physical gap between actors and audience with MacDermot and Dumaresq’s unconventional music stunned the audience I saw the show with into relative silence at first. But the performances were engaging enough to keep them in their seats for the second act, which delivered an much bigger emotional pay-off and made the apparent frivolity of the first act all worthwhile.
The cast, as is always the case at Barrington Stage, is top-notch. In this incarnation of Ithaca, California, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and little Ulysses is decidedly above average. Foley, who at 12 is twice as old as the character he is playing, does a good job channeling Ulysses’s innocence and curiosity without becoming overly cute and cloying. List does not fare so well playing younger than his chronological age as Homer, I could have done with someone less slick and “stagey.”
If there was ever a perfect fit of actress to role it is Debby Boone to Kate MacCauley. The part might as well have been written for her, and she is currently the perfect age to play it. Kate MacCauley is everything that we imagine Debby Boone at fifty to be, and Boone appears to be very comfortable filling her sturdy, well-worn shoes.
Kreeger and Calvert make appealing leading men, both being handsome and blessed with strong singing voices. Likewise James and Lewis are adorable ingénues, pretty and curvy with plenty of singing chops.
A magnificent singer named Cheryl Freeman performs in the ensemble and plays a role called “Beautiful Music.” She appears throughout the show as, of all things, the embodiment of telegraphic communication. Western Union discontinued telegraph service on January 27th of this year, and so the beautiful music of the Morse Code no longer carries messages of joy and grief through the air, but listening to Freeman sing its praises made me want to get a wireless set of my own.
I entered the theatre predisposed to like The Human Comedy and I left feeling that this production was simultaneously just as wonderful and not quite as wonderful as I had hoped it would be. I do wish Barrington Stage’s new Union Street Theatre had been finished in time to house this production as I think most of the problem here is the overly large venue at BCC. But if you want to have the cockles of your heart warmed, the sight of the overall-clad Ulysses leaping and waving to get the attention of the train man is pretty much guaranteed to do it.
The Barrington Stage Company production of The Human Comedy runs through July 16, at The Boland Theatre in the Koussevitzky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. While this show is clean as a whistle, it has a sad ending that might be too much for younger children. I would say this one is best enjoyed by ages 10 and up. Call the box office 413-236-8888 or from South County call 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006