Tuesday, June 7, 2011

APAC’s The Human Comedy – Satisfying on Many Levels

By Georgina Young-Ellis

The Human Comedy, Astoria Performing Arts Center’s musical offering for its tenth anniversary season, opened to a sold out house Thursday, May 5th. Set designer Michael P. Kramer has worked his usual magic, transforming the space into the mythical town of Ithaca, California, circa 1943. The inviting wooden set perfectly depicts a telegraph office and a modest front yard, while an enormous Service Flag (the official banner for families who have loved ones serving in the armed forces) occasionally serves as a scrim through which we witness flashback scenes. A small band dressed in World War II uniforms sits on stage as orchestra. In the opening number, the cast marches in singing, “In a Little Town,” and proceeds to seat themselves on risers facing the audience – a kind of mirror for our emotions as the play unfolds. They also serve as chorus and alter ego for the characters center stage.

Written by Galt MacDermot (Hair) and William Dumaresq, and based on a story by William Saroyan, the play tells the story of the impact of World War II on the good people of Ithaca, focusing mainly on the Macauley family, who has already lost their father in the war. In the tradition of rock opera, nearly every word is sung, and even has a certain rock edge that is not unexpected from the writer of Hair though the score is also infused with Swing era songs and some beautiful anthems.

There was one aspect to the show that remained unclear to me. In “Hi Ya, Kid,” the second song of the first act, Ulysses Macauley (played by adorable eight-year-old Anthony Pierini), waves to a trainman, (Douglas Lyons) and as he wonders where the man is going and why his home is far away, he learns from his mother that, because the trainman is black and the Macauleys are white, their homes are far apart. It is a small moment, seemingly insignificant in the scope of the story, which is not about race or racism. However, it set me up for confusion later on. We see both black and white soldiers go to war and end up in the same platoon. Together they sing a song, “My Sister Bess,” in praise of Marcus Macauley’s sister, and Marcus expresses a wish that his comrade, who happens to be black, could meet her and date her. But I couldn’t forget that the army was definitely not integrated in WWII, nor would there be such a nonchalant acceptance of an inter-racial relationship, especially in a small town. I don’t think the racial harmony was part of Saroyan’s story nor Dumaresq’s libretto, and so I left feeling perplexed: why would director Tom Wojtunik ask us to accept a color-blind reality when the script pointed out a distinct difference between black and white? Did he intend to slip in a subtle message of love and understanding between the races, or give us an optimistic preview of the Civil Rights movement to come? I found the lack of explanation distracting.

Though occasionally the music requires strange transitions and possesses atonal qualities that some of the singers had trouble with, overall, the excellence that is the hallmark of all APAC productions is infused throughout The Human Comedy, and for this I applaud Wojtunik. From the gorgeous, period-perfect costumes designed by Hunter Kaczorowski to the subtle and effective lighting by Dan Jobbins, the show is delightful on so many levels. The cast of singers and actors are top notch, especially Aaron J. Libby as Homer Macauley, Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Mary Arena, Jonathan Gregg as Thomas Spangler, Rayna Hickman as Diana Steed, and Marcie Henderson as Beautiful Music. The show runs until May 21st, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 and Saturday afternoon at 2:00. You can reserve tickets at www.apacny.org but don’t wait because, if APAC’s history is any proof, these performances will sell out fast!

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