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Fresh Ham

by Ralph Hammann on July 18, 2013

Northern Boulevard
By Kevin Brofsky, music and lyrics by Carleton Carpenter, directed by Eric Peteron, Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through July 21

 

With Northern Boulevard, Oldcastle promises a new old-fashioned musical. If you’re expecting Berlin, Porter or Gershwin, this show won’t quite provide the trip back, but if you’ll accept lesser Loesser, it should do quite nicely. Similar in its modest reach to Jones and Schmidt’s I Do, I Do, it certainly recalls the form of that musical, which follows a marriage’s changes over 40 years as played against the same barely changing background. But where I Do is set in a bedroom, Boulevard sets its decade-spanning marriage in a deli on Northern Boulevard in Queens, not a place one associates with romance.

It is here where we watch Jerry and Roslyn fall in love and navigate the ups and downs of marriage from 1941 to 1981. The deli, significantly named “Jerry’s,” is the realization of Jerry’s dream, but it is also a chief cause of the couple’s frictions as they attempt to realize a very small piece of the American Dream (that theme again present in a new work—and indicative of the current anxiety over the dream’s inaccessibility).

Other characters who figure into their journey include their son and his wife; Roslyn’s skeptical parents, Saul and Celia; a quartet of landladies; and Dorothy, a waitress whose attraction to Jerry provides further complications.

In Kevin Brofsky’s book, events happen without either a sense of inevitability or surprise, and their fairly humdrum occurrence leaves one wondering why the story is being told. Plays like Quartermaine’s Terms have effectively used the format of following the fates of several characters in one setting over a wide arc of time, and the technique can profoundly moving. But Brofsky’s characters are shallow, and only one undergoes significant growth. That is Saul, a man who initially puts one off, but later becomes dimensional, thanks largely to Richard Howe’s touching performance.

It falls on the actors and lyricist-composer to bring interest to the roles, a tall order that periodically eludes Brad Thomason’s Jerry. Insubstantial and too selfish to garner sympathy, Jerry becomes a schmuck we want to toss through the deli’s window; that we don’t is because Thomason acquits himself well in song and dance. His mother-in-law, Celia, is merely repellent from the outset, which might be OK if Christine Decker, a capable actress, invested her with more depth, but she mostly fumes and snarls.

The landladies are played with gusto and effective accents by Cheryl Howard, who manages to be wonderful even when under a phony wig that recalls Mrs. Bates in the fruit cellar. As the underwritten Dorothy, Jessica Raaum sings passionately and just about achieves a showstopper in the title song.

Cotton Wright’s Roslyn is reason enough to see the show, if only for her unique and luminous beauty and the delight in watching her convincingly and economically age 40 years. But she also gives a nuanced performance that makes Roslyn compelling, and she sings with a distinctive voice that is at once commanding and sweet.

Carlton Carpenter’s songs are another reason to see the show. He’s fashioned some lovely songs (particularly “Half a World Away”) and some very witty ones (“Growing” and “Plus One,” an ode to mathematics and love). The lyrics brim with enjoyable and unforced rhymes, and the tunes harken to an earlier era when melodiousness was not a sin.

All has been smartly staged and fleetly paced by Eric Peterson on Carl Sprague’s realistic set, which holds to its 40s roots while Deborah Peterson’s costumes marvelously evoke the changing eras. One other plus: Oldcastle’s excellent new theater in downtown Bennington is an especially inviting space that offers comfort, intimacy and admirable sightlines.