Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Human Comedy"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE HUMAN COMEDY"

music by Galt MacDermot; libretto by William Dumresq,
based on the novel “The Human Comedy” by William Saroyan
directed by Julianne Boyd
choreographed by Lara Teeter
musical direction by Darren R. Cohen

Trainman … André Garner
Ulysses Macauley … Eamon Foley
Mrs. Kate Macauley … Debby Boone
Homer Macauley … Bobby List
Bess Macauley … Morgan James
Helen … Kiera O’Neil
Miss Hicks; Beautiful Music … Cheryl Freeman
Spangler … Doug Kreeger
Mr. Grogan … Donald Grody
Mary Arena … Megan Lewis
Mexican Woman … Kimberly Cuellar
Thief … Colin Cunliffe
Matthew/Marcus Macauley … Heath Calvert
Tobey … Adam Sansiveri
Diana Steed … Molly Sorohan

Ensemble:

Lori Brooke Cohan; Colin Cunliffe;
Matthew-Lee Erlbach; Robb Sherman

Orchestra:

Piano; Conductor … Darren R. Cohen
Assistant Musical Director; Keyboards … Brian Usifer
Percussion … Dennis Arcano
Trombone … Timothy Atherton
Violin … Edmund Bagnell
Bass … Jenny Hersch
Reeds … Bruce Krasin
Guitar … Jake Siberon
Trumpet … Jeff Stevens

The Barrington Stage Company is currently offering the rarely-seen musical THE HUMAN COMEDY (it briefly played in New York in the mid 1980s); musical-historian Ken Mandelbaum declares it the Great American Opera --- it is, indeed, sung through from beginning to end though it is more oratorio in nature and there are some pleasing, if not mind-sticking, pastiches by Galt MacDermot of HAIR and TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA fame. Whenever the phrase “Great American” prefixes anything, you can expect something Big coming at you, and THE HUMAN COMEDY is decidedly Big whereas its source, William Saroyan’s novella, is decidedly Small. Mr. Saroyan’s direct, childlike writing may strike today’s readers as maudlin and sentimental, which may partly explain why the original New York production failed at the time, competing against the mordant Mr. Sondheim and the grandiose Mr. Lloyd-Webber; to me, the far greater flaw lies in the novella’s sea-change: William Dumresq’s libretto barely skims through the townsfolk of Ithaca, California circa 1943, in particular the Macauley family and their encounters with Life and Death, and Mr. MacDermot pumps Broadway razzmatazz, ‘80s style, into their veins which results in one “A” number after another bowling you over, with the ensemble repeatedly joining in at the most intimate moments --- when you step out into the real world, afterwards, you are amazed at how quiet it is….

But the Barrington production is wonderful: director Julianne Boyd and choreographer Lara Teeter have it running like clockwork, scene changes included (though those stagehands in black should have been period-dressed to blend in), and their cast may be hard and shiny as a lollipop but is just as sweet --- what a rich array of powerful singing voices! The drawing name is Debby Boone as Mrs. Macauley and before you think “Corn” let me say that Ms. Boone has evolved into a beautifully detailed singing actress, properly downsized to fit in with the others --- she had been onstage for awhile, doing her homespun thing, before I realized who she was; Ms. Boone even manages to sound as if she is singing quietly while going at it full throttle. Should anyone want to take on that legendary flop CARRIE: THE MUSICAL, which boasts some magnificent set pieces between mother and daughter, here is your Mrs. White.

Karl Eigsti has designed a ramshackle, sun-kissed setting with the orchestra boxed upstage; Mr. Eigsti’s contribution is the most Saroyan-esque thing in this HUMAN COMEDY though its spell lasts for only a moment before giving way to the aesthetics of John Phillip Sousa.

"The Human Comedy" (24 June - 16 July)
BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY
Berkshire Community College, 1350 West Street, Pittsfield, MA
1 (413) 236-8888

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Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


"WHERE HAS TOMMY FLOWERS GONE?"

by Terrence McNally
directed by E. Gray Simons III

Tommy Flowers … Brian Weaver
Greta; Tommy’s Old Flame … Hannah Wilson
Tommy’s Mother; First Lady … Sarah Kauffman
Ben Delight … Robert Serrell
Hack; Manager; Tommy’s Nephew; Tommy’s Brother … Ben Rosenblatt
Nedda Lemon … Morgan Cox
Marilyn Monroe; Waitress; Bunny Barnum … Lizzie Thrasher

Ensemble:

Moderator; Nun … Kristi Barron
Barmaid; Angel; Gypsy Dancer … Rebecca Berowski
Woman #2; Nun … Amber Bowman
Angel; Detention Ward Nurse; Gypsy Dancer … Katie Edgerton
Miss Subways; Gypsy Dancer … Laura Ferland
Young Tommy; Woman #4 … Hesley Harps
Arnold (a dog)… Nicole Marquez
Man #2; Policeman; Secret Service; Cop … Matt Martin
Woman #3; Gypsy Dancer … Jessica Perelle
Announcer’s Voice; Nun … Rachel Ilana Salowitz
Man #1; Cuban voice; Secret Service … Eli Schneider
Interviewer; Nun … Alan Renee Waksman

If today’s directors and actors can do their homework for classical, Elizabethan and Restoration plays, I see no reason why the same attention cannot be given to plays written several decades ago --- in this case, Terrence McNally’s WHERE HAS TOMMY FLOWERS GONE?, one of the Ten Best Plays of the 1971-72 New York season but now very much the period piece. This funny-angry vaudeville centering around social misfit Tommy Flowers caught those days when sharp lines were divided between Youth and Age, Rules and Freedom, etc. --- Tommy is a zany, dangerous rebel and a far cry from the sweet, boneless hippies of HAIR where all you had to do was to let the sunshine in; thanks to Tommy, his evening ends with a BOOM rather than a bang.

WHERE HAS TOMMY FLOWERS GONE? premiered at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, so long ago, and the Festival has revived it, once again, presumably as a still-timely parable. But the times, they are always a-changing, and the anger of today’s young people is different from that of their immediate elders --- they can’t afford to stop the world and get off, for starters (nor can I imagine them in picket lines, risking being carted off to jail) --- and today’s young actors have different body rhythms from their inherited freedoms; to do Mr. McNally’s play justice, the director must plug his actors into a long-vanished counterculture torn between a stifling Right and a liberating Wrong, but under the direction of E. Gray Simons III, the BTF production is bald and wandering with its Tommy, as portrayed by Brian Weaver, a cross between Richard Simmons’ mannerisms and those rubber-faced dolls whose eyes bug out when you squeeze their necks --- only in the second act does Mr. Weaver start to burn but by then I had dismissed his Tommy as an annoying clown, clearly not Mr. McNally’s intention. The rest of the young ensemble is far too clean and sunny for historical accuracy (one character sports a Valley Girl dialect that was still a decade away) but there are memorable, even moving, moments from Morgan Cox as Tommy’s reluctant lady-love and Robert Serrell as a derelict actor whom Tommy takes under his wing. Nicole Marquez as Arnold the Dog is so convincing in her canine-rhythms and tableaus that when she suddenly does a monologue on all fours, the effect is far more startling than that final, predictable BOOM.

Ian Zywica has designed a lovely Pop-collage set with nostalgic images over which you can smile and reminisce; what this TOMMY FLOWERS needed is a starker setting, grubbier-looking actors and more black-humored direction --- in short, homework.

"Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?" (28 June - 22 July)
BERKSHIRE THEATRE FESTIVAL
Unicorn Theatre, 797 Main Street, Stockbridge, MA
1 (413) 298-5576

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