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She lights up the stage: Boone in The Human Comedy.

For Whom the Bell Tolls


By Ralph Hammann

The Human Comedy

By Galt MacDermot (music) and William Dumaresq (libretto) from the novel by William Saroyan; directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 16

Julianne 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.

Upon 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 theater facilities.

Aided 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.

If only 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?

Those 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.

As noted, 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.

Particularly 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).

As Homer’s 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 provide.

Ultimately 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.


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