The Siegel Column

Head for the hills: Two worthy shows at Barrington Stage Company in The Berkshires

It doesn't happen often, but every now and then we leave Manhattan. When we do, we don't go to the beach or hike mountain trails. We do the same things we always do, just in a different location: we go to the theater. The only difference is that we get mosquito bites during intermission.

This time, we took ourselves off to The Berkshires, where theater thrives during the summer, and took in a couple of plays at Barrington Stage Company which has just relocated to Pittsfield, MA. You may recall that it was Barrington Stage Company that gave The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee its start, so we arrived with already heightened expectations to catch a revival of the Broadway musical The Human Comedy (music by Galt MacDermot) and a new musical being "mentored" by William Finn called The Burnt Part Boys. Here's the lowdown ...

3 Stars: The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy
Megan Lewis and
Heath Calvert

A well-cast, smartly directed revival of The Human Comedy showcases some bright young talent while also providing strong roles for veteran actors. This new production also sets the show's flaws and gifts in sharp relief.

A musicalization of William Saroyan's famous wartime story, the show was a surprise hit in the early 1980s at The Public Theater. When it moved to Broadway, however, it lasted just over a week. A tribute to the values of small town America during the Second World War, the show then, as now, had two major problems. The first was that the plot was stupefyingly obvious. We won't reveal it here but it doesn't take long before you know where the main threads of the story are going. Strike two against the show was the score's stilted lyrics. You've got to wince when a soldier, writing home to his kid brother during World War II, sings these words: "I sure do miss you all of the while/But I am happy and often I smile/Though I don't believe in wars, no sir /I know they're foolish for what they incur."

But a musical is a hybrid art form and while the show suffers from its plot and often awkward lyrics (no one is specifically credited for the lyrics, although William Dumaresq wrote the libretto), it often soars with MacDermot's rich, deeply American musical themes. There is a living, breathing sense of Americana in the music, but MacDermot doesn't get there through cliché. He paid keen attention to period music and then imbued his themes with a sense of nostalgic majesty. However, the disconnect between music and lyrics can be jarring at times. Happily, though, director Julianne Boyd (Barrington Stage Company's Artistic Director) has assembled such a strong cast that the actors often, by sheer force of personality, push the audience past those clunker lyrics. In addition, the direction itself is so swift and so sure-handed that the piece is never allowed to stumble. Lara Teeter's choreography adds a stylish sense of polish to the proceedings, while the set design by Karl Eigsti and the costume design by Alejo Vietti give the production an added glow.

Among the young performers who shine in this version of The Human Comedy are Bobby List, who plays one of the play's lead characters, Homer Macauley, with an innocent vulnerability coupled with an impressive display of musical theater skills. Here is a young actor with a future. In a smaller role, Megan Lewis cuts a swath through the play as the girlfriend of a boy who's gone to war. Other notable young performers are Doug Kreeger, Morgan James, Heath Calvert and Adam Sansiveri. Among the veterans, one of the play's most pleasant surprises is the work of Debby Boone as the matriarch of the Macauley family; she manages the difficult job of holding the musical's center with its potentially saccharine bromides thanks to her sincerity and commitment. Cheryl Freeman has an ill-defined role in the show but sings the hell out of her numbers, while Donald Grody provides avuncular charm.

This production of The Human Comedy is a thoughtful – and, at times, moving – echo of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. It's a look back at a way of life that perhaps never really existed, but oh how we wish that it did.

The Human Comedy continues its run through July 16 at the Boland Theatre, Koussevitsky Arts Center, Berkshire Community College through the auspices of the Barrington Stage Company (413-236-8888).

4 Stars: The Burnt Part Boys

The Burnt Party Boys
Charlie Brady, Tim Ewing and Daniel Zaitchik
It looks likely that yet another musical will come to New York City from the estimable Barrington Stage Company. And this, too, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, will have William Finn's stamp on it, although in this case it's his stamp of approval. It was Finn who found The Burnt Part Boys and brought it to Barrington, nurturing the show as its "Artistic Producer" at the company's Stage II: Musical Theatre Lab. The nurturing began some time ago as two of the show's three creators are Finn's former students. And what a wonderful job Finn has done to help pass the musical theater baton to another generation ...

The Burnt Part Boys is a period piece that takes place in a mining town during the early 1960s. Ten years earlier there was a terrible accident that killed twelve men. Their bodies were never recovered. The company burned down that area of their operation and swore that they would never re-open the mine. But on the day the musical begins, our teenage hero Pete (Daniel Zaitchik), who lost his father in the accident, is stunned to hear a report on the local radio news that the "Burnt Part" will be re-opened. Worse, he soon discovers that his older brother, Jake (Charlie Brady) will be among those who will re-open it.

While Pete and his best friend Dusty (Robert Krecklow) set off on a wild plan to blow up the old mine to forestall the company's plan, Jake and his co-worker and pal Chet (Brandon Ellis) figure out what the kids are up to and follow them to the Burnt Part – a sacred place where none of them has ever dared go to before.

In the basement of the Pittsfield, MA library, set designer Brian Prather and lighting designer Chris Lee have created a series of scenes that take place on a mountain and in a mine; they've done it with nothing more than chairs, ladders, and lighting effects. Most of all, though, our imaginations conjure the images set before us, thanks to an evocative book by Mariana Elder, rousing music by Chris Miller and emotionally potent lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Under the inventive direction of Joe Calarco, The Burnt Part Boys is a mostly sung-through example of strong and deeply satisfying musical theater. Simply put, the show has a meaningful book and an excellent score. And with that, comes a future ...

As a theatre lab project, the show is not without its flaws. The plot has some rough edges, particularly in the first act, and throughout the piece the lead role of Pete is over-acted by Zaitchik. The first act seems to handcuff some of the other actors; Charlie Brady as Jake and Halle Petro as Annie (Jake's rich girlfriend who is the daughter of the mine's owner) are rather wan at first but become particularly winning in the second half of the show – partly due, of course, to getting better songs later in the proceedings. Delightful throughout is Krecklow as Dusty, as well as Ellis as Chet. Katherine McClain is a discovery as the tom-boyish Frances (she has a great '60s pop tune to sing called "Debra Sue"), and Tim Ewing is simply wonderful in a variety of roles culminating in the ghostly presence of Pete and Jake's father.

Without giving too much away, the finale is a rich and complex combination of audacious book writing and masterful musicianship. Congrats to all. When it comes to New York, bring tissues because the show is ultimately a cry fest. Oh, how wonderful it is to be moved by musical theater again ...

The Burnt Part Boys has been extended through July 15th. Call the number above for tickets to this Barrington Stage Company production. Mosquitoes not included.

Photos: Kevin Sprague

Barbara and Scott Siegel