The Theatreguide.London Review
The Human Comedy
Young Vic and Watford Palace Autumn 2010
William Saroyan's 1943 novel caught the sentimental spirit of the time - the movie the same year won an Oscar - but the musical adaptation by Galt MacDermot (yes, of Hair) and William Dumaresq flopped on Broadway in a more cynical 1984.
Enough time has passed, though, for us to appreciate Saroyan's affectionate embrace of small-town working-class Americana, while John Fulljames's staging (a triple co-production of the Young Vic, the Watford Palace and the Opera Group) displays all that is best (and some of what's weakest) in this lovely little folk opera.
The father of the family at the story's centre has died and the eldest son has gone off to war, and the youngest son has trouble understanding either of these, his incessant questions adding to his mother's pain.
Meanwhile the teenaged middle son gets a job at the local telegraph office delivering messages, too many of which bring bad news from the War Office.
You don't need me to tell you where this story is going, only to assure you that Saroyan finds a way for the warmth of the world he has created to absorb further sadness and find its way to carry on.
Galt MacDermot's almost completely sung-through score includes several lovely melodies, though as in Hair many of them are barely a single chorus long, only a few developed into full songs.
William Dumaresq's lyrics are significantly inferior, either pedestrian prose sentences squeezed uncomfortably into the melodies or straining for rhymes like army/barmy and Marcus/park us.
Still, the score includes the teenager's perky job application 'I Can Carry A Tune', the sweet soldiers' hymn 'Everlasting' and a bouncy comic number for the telegraph man and his lady friend.
Jos Slovick as the teenager and Helen Hobson as his mother skilfully and sympathetically carry much of the dramatic weight of the production, with strong support from Jo Servi as the telegraph man and Terel Nugent as the soldier son's buddy.
For this production the chorus of more than sixty townspeople has been drawn from local amateurs, and they blend in smoothly with the pros, providing not only musical backing but a visual sense of the community that is as much the hero of the story as the central family.
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