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We're a Little Family by Matthew Murray

  • HumanComedy1.jpgFor musical revivals about families—whether creating them or merely surviving them—there's getting to be no better place than the Astoria Performing Arts Center each spring. Two years ago, the company did a respectable Ragtime; last year's Children of Eden was even better. But this year's show is the warmest and most fascinating of the three, a heartfelt and fascinating deconstruction of the American family facing its own destruction: The Human Comedy.

    Based on the 1943 William Saroyan novel of the same name, it's at its most basic about a San Joaquin Valley family enduring World War II, with one father who's already been lost and a brother who's gone off to fight. Deeper than that, however, it's about the endearing, enduring ties that bind this country's disparate souls. Whether divided by a street, an ocean, or even an entire class structure, we're all capable of—and responsible for—being better than we are.

    It's much the same message as another and more famous war musical, Hair, though the two unthinkably share a composer. Comparing the homespun, Top 40–of–the–1940s tunes of The Human Comedy with Hair's undulating hippie-pop, one might not see how Galt MacDermot could responsible for both. Yet each score perfectly captures the sound of its setting, whether ailing America of the early-mid 20th century or the youthful vibrancy of a late-mid-20th-century generation coming into its own. Both are, in their inimitable American ways, operas, while remaining entirely and unapologetically works of rigidly resourceful American theatre.

    Watching the show today, especially so soon after Hair's recent successful revival (and with it scheduled to reopen soon), it's only The Human Comedy's unfortunate early history that has prevented it from matching the other show's prominence. A critical and popular success at The Public Theater in 1983, it transferred to Broadway in 1984 and ran a grand total of 13 performances, its gentle charms reportedly diluted (if not boiled off altogether) by being set adrift in a too-big house. And that's understandable: Without the enveloping sense of community fostered by being mere feet away from the actors, becoming such a part of their everyday lives that you feel you may break into song as often as the large ensemble does, the simple concerns of these people might seem trite and twee enough to be unbearable.

    At the APAC production, which has been directed with brash brightness and stinging sensitivity by Tom Wojtunik, that's not a problem. You become intimately enough involved with the Macauleys that they may as well be your own relatives or your closest friends. As Homer, the young teen who must leave school to work and support his family while his brother is off at war, Aaron J. Libby is the picture of boy-next-door awkwardness. His older sister, Bess (Deidre Haren), pulses with late-adolescent elegance, struggling to be both older and younger than she is, strong and soft at the same time. Mother Kate is holding down the house, and her own despair, as best she can, a feat that Victoria Bundonis displays with optimistic, yet aching, enthusiasm. The youngest boy, Ulysses (Anthony Pierini), is still trying to figure out the world, or at least what he can glimpse of it while watching the trains sail by. Meanwhile, Homer's brother Marcus, whom Stephen Trafton injects with plenty of timid excitement, is too near the front lines for anyone's good.

    The closest Homer gets is his job delivering telegrams, too many of which are tragic. But that becomes his entrée to life as well as death, as the workaday world of his bosses, the younger Thomas Spangler (an excellent Jonathan Gregg) and the borderline-ancient Willie Grogan (Richard Vernon), becomes the escape Homer needs from the sorrow he can't escape at home.

    There's little sadness in the town of Ithaca itself, which is a crucial part of the show's success. Conceived as something of a community meeting, the show unfolds with most of the performers seated on wooden chairs on Michael P. Kramer's tiered town-hall set, vantage points that allow them to be both outside and within the action. Chorus jobs may sometimes seem thankless, both from the stage or from the audience, but here every one is vital: Each voice that rises up in support of, or merely to echo, a thought or a feeling is a reminder that existence is always bigger than we are. And as the war casualties mount, that support system becomes ever more crucial, to both the characters onstage and to us—for we grow almost as attached as they to everyone we meet.

    HumanComedy2.jpgLibrettist William Dumaresq has provided some excellent storytelling, though his lyrics oscillate uneasily between the celestially poetic and the earthly banal. When waxing rhapsodic about the enlivening sounds created by telegraph keys ("Beautiful Music," given gospel-weight fervor as led by Marcie Henderson) or providing a cruel juxtaposition between Bess and Marcus's left-behind girlfriend, Mary (Rachel Rhodes-Devey), chatting about boys they've dated while a mother receives word that her son will not be coming home, the scale and sweep of the writing are inarguable. The numerous minor numbers, and the connecting tissue between them, that most ring as recitative, lack the full punch they need to contribute to a fully realized score.

    But the overall emotional texture of The Human Comedy is just what it needs to be, from first scene to last, to powerfully evoke the American spirit at both its highest and its lowest. When in the show's final moments the full cast sings the exuberant "Fathers and Mothers," about the unbreakable relationships we all have with each other, the only thing that will stop you from singing along is the intricate understanding that this show, unlike so many others, has already tapped into the music inherent in your own heart.

    The Human Comedy plays through May 21 at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (30-44 Crescent Street in Astoria). For more information, or to buy tickets, click here.

    Photos by Michael R. Dekker. Top to bottom: Victoria Bundonis and Anthony Pierini; Marcie Henderson; the cast; Aaron J. Libby, Richard Vernon, and Jonathan Gregg; Stephen Trafton and members of the ensemble.

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