Also see Scott's review of Legally Blonde, The Musical
Starting last year, the Musical Theatre Program of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) launched Musicals Redux, where one of its three studio productions would be devoted to staging simple productions of forgotten American musical theater gems. This year, CCM presented the rarely produced 1984 Broadway musical The Human Comedy. This show is a mixed bag of extreme highs and frustrating lows, but CCM's mounting showcases the material and its talented young cast very well.
The Human Comedy follows the Macauley family and the other residents of mythical Ithaca, California, during World War II. Based on the novel by William Saroyan, the story chronicles the daily lives of the family and townsfolk as they struggle to deal with the horrors of war and death, but also as they try to find contentment, peace and understanding in their ever-changing world.
The Human Comedy is completely sung through, and features music by Galt MacDermot and lyrics by William Dumaresq. The score contains a whopping 86 songs, with most of them being short snippets of a minute or two. Mr. MacDermot's melodies are consistently brilliant and vary greatly in musical style, including 1940s swing, pop, folk, early rock, traditional musical theater showtunes, soaring gospel spirituals, and enchanting choral anthems. This is the third musical by the composer produced by CCM in the last fourteen months (along with the better known Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona), and the music for this show may be the best of the bunch. The lyrics aren't in the same league as the music, but are mostly suitable. Song highlights include "In A Little Town," the folksy opening number that sets the story into motion; plaintive tunes such as "Long Past Sunset" and "Somewhere, Someone"; and "Beautiful Music," which describes the sounds of a telegraph keys as it receives messages. This song segues back and forth between glorious choral work and a gospel solo line that is musically stirring. The only criticism of the songs besides some clumsy lyrics is the overuse of a Greek chorus to repeat verses previously sung by a soloist. Still, the score is one of the most underappreciated of the last thirty years.
The book for the musical is another story. It's been said that most successful musicals tell the story of either big events or big characters, and The Human Comedy does neither. Instead, it follows everyday people doing everyday activities, and the results are a bit boring at times. As much as an audience may feel for the characters, it doesn't make for ideal storytelling. The book adaptation, also by lyricist William Dumaresq, has extremely scattered focus and oddly fails to introduce three primary characters until after the intermission. After a fairly smooth-sailing act one, the second half of the show falls apart in regard to the plot. As is often the case in flop musicals (the Broadway production only lasted a few weeks), a strong score is let down by a lackluster book.
This CCM production was one of the best sung in recent memory, and solidly acted as well. Many of the thirty-two cast members (all underclassmen) got a chance to shine in this truly ensemble piece. Making the greatest impression were Carlyn Connolly (a warm and moving Kate Macauley), Leeds Hill (a spirited Homer), Lauren Roesner (an endearing Bess), Alysha Deslorieux (soloist on "Beautiful Music") and Greg Tate (Mr. Spangler). There were fine performances turned in as well by Alaina Mills (Diana), Julie Kavanagh (Mary Arena), Andre Catrini (Mr. Grogan), Kelly O'Neill (Ulysses), Max Chernin (Tobey) and Ben Durocher (Marcus). The entire ensemble provided committed portrayals throughout.
Director Aubrey Berg did well in staging the piece in what amounted to a blank stage with only some chairs, a desk and a table. The comedic and tragic elements of the piece were presented clearly, and the blocking and transitions were effective. Only in one of the final scenes, just after Homer receives a telegram regarding the fate of his brother, did the direction seem muddled and counterintuitive to the material. Otherwise, the staging was just what the piece needs. The piano accompaniment and musical direction by Anthony DeAngelis was excellent, and the atmospheric lighting by Weston Wetzel added to the poignant moments in the show.
The Human Comedy is worth staging and seeing if for no other reason than to hear the wonderful music by composer Galt MacDermot, and CCM's young cast sang the score with great skill and emotion. The musical played at CCM through May 15, 2010.