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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Calvin Berger: Contemporary American High School Musical Inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac

Also see Bob's reviews of Barefoot in the Park and Lost In Yonkers

Calvin Berger
Krystal Joy Brown, Noah Weisberg and
Dana Steingold

Calvin Berger is a light and by and large enjoyable, upbeat, contemporary musical adaptation of the classic French play Cyrano de Bergerac. A modest four-character confection which dispenses with all of the drama and tragedy of Cyrano, Calvin Berger is an especially good choice for family audiences and will resonate most strongly with young adults and adolescents.

The bright and likeable Calvin (Cyrano) has long been smitten with the attractive, likeable and bright Rosanna (Roxane). However, Calvin is afraid to court Rosanna as he unreasonably believes that his large nose makes him romantically unappealing. She kind of likes him, but inexplicably feels that Calvin would not be interested in her as being admired just for her grace and beauty has made her feel boring and unworthy.

Newly arrived at the beginning of the school year is the handsome, good natured but tongue-tied, and frankly dumb as dirt Matt (Christian), who joins Calvin on the varsity wrestling team. Drawn to Rosanna, Matt starts to turn her off with his foolish talk, and turns to Calvin to provide him with conversation and love letters.

The quartet is completed by Bret (Le Bret), Cyrano's best friend and confidant. Most cleverly, Calvin Berger's Bret is La Bret, and she is in love with Calvin who is blind to her affection for him. Bret is a "one of the boys" kind of girl, short and, in her own eyes, unattractive. The only real conflict in this musical occurs when Calvin betrays Matt by providing him a letter to give to Rosanna in which he tells her of their deception in an attempt to steal her love.

It is a particular pleasure to be introduced to new and upcoming talent in the musical theatre. Calvin Berger is the first produced musical by Barry Wyner, who has singlehandedly provided book, music and lyrics. Wyner has set this daunting task for himself with mixed results. However, there can be little doubt that Wyner is a very talented young writer and those of us who love the American musical theatre will be looking forward to his future projects. I believe there are very good reasons that it is a very rare when the book and score of a successful musical is not a collaborative effort. The scope and complexity of joining music, lyrics and script, as well as the competitiveness and cooperation, and exchange of ideas and criticism that can best be provided by a close collaborator are invaluable.

On the questionable basis of a first hearing, Wyner's music is workman-like generic theatre rock, right down to the intriguing classical music sounding arrangements provided by Douglas Besterman for the argumentative/conversational lyrics. I enjoyed the ballad "Perfect For You" on my second hearing of it during its reprise. Still, I did find that the ballads were slow spots rather than highlights here.

Better yet is Wyner's sweet, literate and clever book. Both would be improved if Rosanna were given a strong reason for sharing each of the too many quartets in which the foursome serially and then together bemoan their unhappiness. I know it doesn't take much to make an adolescent feel miserable, but dramaturgically Rosanna needs stronger motivation than she gets here. Also, the evening's denouement would be more believable if Matt wasn't so stupid. The book also contains too many double entendres, albeit that most are funny and clever. Particularly sophomoric is the seemingly endless repetition of the joke of having the name of Rosanna's charity, S.H.I.T.O.T.S. (Students Helping Innocent Toddlers Off The Streets) meant as an acronym to be pronounced "Shy-Tots", mispronounced by Calvin and Matt as "Shit-Tots". I know that there are only four characters on stage, but, even without an advisor, would not Rosanna have realized that by changing the word "innocent" to "your" or "young" (I know that toddlers by definition are young), she would have had her acronym.

Best of all are Wyner's witty and mellifluous lyrics which fall perfectly on the music. Just a few, short examples:

Dreaming of meeting the right boy, Rosanna sings:

I can see him now,
showing up at my door 'cause he had to see my face,
understanding when I want to stop at second base.

(Just before Rosanna sings of stopping at second base, her lyric references "basketball." It would enhance the cleverness of the lyric if the reference was to "baseball".)

After it turns out that Rosanna wanted to see Calvin about her charity and not about a date, Calvin sings:

It just wasn't meant to happen,
just wasn't meant to be.
Don't try to look for answers.
Love's not the S.A.T.

Matt, who never talks "good" at any time, does even worse around girls:

With only guys around me,
I always talk real good.
But when I'm talking to a babe,
things don't go as they should.
I start a conversation,
the blood starts rushing south,
and yada yada foot is in my mouth.

Krystal Joy Brown is radiant in the role of Rosanna. Brown has charm and beauty to spare and, more importantly, she sings like an angel. Her sweet, strong and accurate notes are a joy to hear. Noah Weisberg brings a nice, anxiety-ridden comic touch and strong vocalizations to the title role. David Hull captures the goofy humor of Matt perfectly. Dana Steingold as Bret is a bit strident. The villain here may be the sound system which makes the songs which rocked the most (Bret's) sound a bit shrill.

Veteran director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall makes fine use of the playable and efficient two-level unit set by Derek McLane. Marshall stages the scenes so well that we are never conscious of the absence of any faculty or other students. However, the fact that almost all of her work as a director has been with revivals may account for her not helping the talented Barry Wyner eliminate avoidable neophyte lapses.

Still in all, it is a pleasure to welcome Calvin Berger, its talented young author Barry Wyner and this fine troupe to New Jersey.

Calvin Berger continues performances (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Thursday & Sunday 7 pm (except 3/14) / Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm/ Thursday 3/4 & 3/11 - 2 pm through March 14, 2010 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org

Calvin Berger by Barry Wyner; directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Cast
Calvin Berger........................Noah Weisberg
Bret.......................................Dana Steingold
Rosanna............................Krystal Joy Brown
Matt...............................................David Hull


Photo: Richard Termine


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- Bob Rendell



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