Age of innocence

Barrington Stage revives The Human Comedy
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 7, 2006


NEGLECTED GEM? Well, Galt MacDermot at least has a way with rhythm and melody.
Galt MacDermot’s 1968 Hair didn’t just conjure the freewheeling, militant idealism of its era; it came to embody it. And in the 1984 musical The Human Comedy, which is based on the novella by William Saroyan, MacDermot was still letting the sunshine in — despite the plot’s focus on a boy whose after-school job is delivering death notifications. This time out, MacDermot, collaborating with librettist William Dumaresq, dips into the well of all-American innocence, adapting Saroyan’s 1943 story (which became a 1943 film starring Mickey Rooney) set in the small, symbolically named town of Ithaca, California, where 14-year-old Homer Macauley drinks in the folksy wonder of life while dispensing telegrams informing folks that their loved ones have made the ultimate sacrifice. But that’s not the only pall associated with the musical; The Human Comedy lasted just days on Broadway in ’84 and has rarely been revived. As America once again deals with the numbing daily news of war casualties, Barrington Stage Company honcho Julianne Boyd sets out to remedy that. And given MacDermot’s fondness for the big bright orb, it seems fitting that her energetic, heartfelt staging (at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield through July 16) should feature 1970s pop star Debby “You Light Up My Life” Boone.

Boyd is loaded with savvy, and it would be nice to report that The Human Comedy is a neglected gem. But the musical is puzzling in tone. Saroyan’s wry if sentimental account of small-town life in wartime, from the brothel-like Bethel Rooms to the Parlor Lecture Club (both visited by Homer in his perambulations for Postal Telegraph), is redolent of Thornton Wilder. But the musical, which draws on idioms from jazz and swing to gospel to early rock and roll, is more like American Bandstand gussied up with uniforms. And whereas Saroyan’s writing has a colloquial elegance that mixes quaint naïveté with perceptive irony, Dumaresq’s libretto for this through-sung piece (which did begin life as an opera) is doggerel from beginning to end. If there’s a “When I’m forlorn” to rhyme with “soul unborn” or a “fighting a war” to glue to “not sure what for,” Dumaresq will find it.

MacDermot, on the other hand, has a way with rhythm and melody, and some of his tunes are irresistible. A presence called Beautiful Music has the job of extending the community connection forged by Saroyan into a musical one, and the gospel melodies assigned to Cheryl Freeman as this interconnective Muse soar. The musical is ever mindful of the role of the town as character; the ensemble is everywhere. And there are some daring juxtapositions, like the snappy girls’ number “I Let Him Kiss Me Once” with “Killed in Action,” Homer’s awkward first call with tidings of death. The best number is a duet for Homer and his soldier brother, “Dear Brother Homer,” sung a little off unison by Bobby List, as a credibly sensitive and confused Homer, and hunky Heath Calvert, as Marcus, in which Dumaresq’s cliché’d rhymes are hard to hear and the emotion is in the music.

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