With a cast of twenty five excellent actors and a terrific creative team director Tom Wojtunik has accomplished the impossible of making a flawed musical almost work with the Astoria Performing Arts Center’s production of “The Human Comedy” – a 1984 sung through folk opera by Galt MacDermot (composer of HAIR) with a libretto by William Dumaresq which accounts for much of the shows weaknesses.
It is based on the novel by William Saroyan written in 1944 – aiming to give the country hope during WWII. That life goes on no matter what happens and that we must savor the simple things in our lives. Count your blessings and try not to be too affected by the number of soldiers killed no matter how hard that may be to do.
The production couldn’t be better despite the strangeness of the piece. Michael P. Kramer has designed an attractive and serviceable unit set with telegraph poles that reach into the audience and with a second tier behind a scrim to illuminate scenes not suited for the main playing area that consists of wooden chairs where many of the cast members remain seated throughout – backing up the actors in some terrific choral numbers. One chair in particular will haunt you as there is a framed photograph of a departed soldier with a rosary attached.
This coming of age tale unfolds with a multitude of songs – many of them under developed and unmemorable. Homer Macauley (a sprightly Aaron J. Libby) gets a job at the telegraph office to help out his mother Kate (Victoria Bundonis – who sings beautifully and conveys the sadness in her life without becoming maudlin). His dad Matthew (Jan-Peter Pedross) has died and his older brother Marcus (a fine Stephen Trafton) has gone off to war. His younger brother Ulysses (adorable Anthony Pierini) happily waves to the Trainman (Douglas Lyons/Matthew S. Morgan) as the train passes through Ithaca, California as life races by.
We see the effects of the war at home and on the front and at the telegraph office where an old Mr. Grogan (Richard Vernon) begins to drink heavily when the news of so many deaths from the War Department takes its toll on him. On staff is Felix (the excellent Michael Lee Jones) and Thomas Spangler (a strong and endearing Jonathan Gregg) who is pursued by Diana (Rayna Hickman).
We see the soldiers bonding under fire and one in particular Tobey (the remarkable D. William Hughes) is befriended by Marcus and it is he who has the best songs in the show which he sings magnificently – “Everlasting” and “Marcus, My Friend”.
More a metaphor than a character Beautiful Music (Marcie Henderson) in a white gown sings the rousing “When I Am Lost” and leads the dead off to a higher ground.
The reality of war hits us squarely in the face as Mrs. Macauley sings “Daddy Will Not Come” but we are reminded to enjoy coconut cream pie and there is a very funny song that the soldiers sing while looking at girlie magazines – “How I Love (your thingamajig)”.
It is amazing what the APAC has accomplished. Dusting off a not very successful musical whose themes resonate with us today about war, family and home and giving it an exceptional production where many actors are beautifully showcased. One such highlight is the touching and beautiful duet between Homer and Marcus – “Dear Brother Homer” which alone makes “The Human Comedy” worth seeing.
Photo: Michael R. Dekker
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