MacDermot (music) and William Dumaresq (libretto) from the
novel by William Saroyan; directed by Julianne Boyd
Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 16
Boyd, artistic director and cockeyed optimist extraordinaire,
is exercising her transformative powers and staking her claim
in Pittsfield. With a brace of unsung musicals, Boyd is giving
a preview of what audiences can expect in the near future
after Barrington Stage moves into its new home on Union Street.
entering the Robert Boland Theatre on the Berkshire Community
College campus, one feels a sense of excitement and expectation
emanating from the set for The Human Comedy. It’s the
sort of vitality that has too often been missing in the Boland
ever since Bob Boland himself stopped regularly producing,
directing and designing shows in one of the area’s premiere
by the expert designs of Karl Eigsti (sets), Scott Pinkney
(lights) and Alejo Vietti (costumes) and Lara Teeter’s vigorous
choreography, Boyd is staging the forgotten musical, which
is based on William Saroyan’s singular novel, with fluidity,
energy and compassion. Enlisting the considerable talents
of a large and largely youthful cast, Boyd is breathing all
the life possible into the sung-through musical that examines
the effects of WWII on a small California community in 1943.
The timing of the production couldn’t be better in a time
when as a society we seem in danger of losing a sense of community
as we drift closer and closer to John Donne’s dread island.
MacDermot’s music and Dumaresq’s libretto were up to Saroyan’s
sublime source material that posits a belief in the goodness
of people. One continually wants the music and lyrics to theatrically
emphasize the belief that no man is an island and that anyone’s
death diminishes everyone, which is one of the reasons Boyd
is producing it. As she asks in a touching program note, do
we know less today about the young men and women serving in
an overseas war—or do we care less?
questions find their most eloquent representations in the
reproductions of period posters that frame the set. Such phrases
as “Do with less—so they’ll [U.S. GIs] have more,” remind
us of the acid observations the indispensable Bill Maher made
about our current selfishness as compared to the selflessness
and sacrifices of Americans during World War II.
the production values are better than we perhaps have a right
to expect from a company that is mounting shows in five different
venues in a two-month period. And Boyd’s casting, with but
one exception, is top-flight with a remarkably large cast
who must act, sing and dance with equal measures of joie de
vivre, uncomplicated earnestness and Saroyonesque self-effacement.
winning is Bobby List’s Homer Macauley, the telegram boy whose
life changes when he must deliver news of deceased soldiers
to their families. List is at the center of the show, if this
show can be said to have a center; at any rate he does much
to provide an anchor for us. Excellent work is also done by
Andre Garner, Morgan James, Doug Kreeger, Donald Grody, and
especially Eamon Foley, Heath Calvert, Adam Sansiveri (who
provides one of the most affecting moments as a returning
soldier) and Megan Lewis (whose voice is most pure and compelling).
widowed mother, Debby Boone—billed as the show’s star—performs
gracefully without a trace of star ego. She sings with assured
depth and warmth, particularly in the final song, the last
moments of which are upstaged by Cheryl Freeman, who enters
with self-importance and sings above the rest of the company.
Earlier, Freeman appears as a caricatured schoolmarm and then
as the personification of the song she sings, “Beautiful Music,”
although her rendition would be more aptly titled “Loud Music.”
It’s a song that requires more subtlety and nuance of the
sort that a singer like Audra McDonald (or maybe Lewis) could
though, the work itself lacks focus and suffers from lyrics
that are often mundane or music that doesn’t really develop
into much. An able octet of musicians under the direction
of Darren R. Cohen are situated on stage in the sort of bandstand
that I wish was not so reminiscent of the one that has seemingly
become de rigueur since introduced by the Broadway revival
of Chicago. Like the actors, they too try to create
a sense of community. But truly, it first takes a playwright
to raise a village.