IRVING There are always many routes that lead home.
That is the primary point explored by The Human Comedy, a 1984 musical based on the famous 1943 literary classic by William Saroyan, which opened at Lyric Stage on Friday. It features music by Galt MacDermot, who scored the scandalous 1960s musical Hair, and book and lyrics by William Dumaresq.
Set in the fictional California town of Ithaca (believed to be a stand-in for Saroyan’s native Fresno), The Human Comedy looks at the morose lives of those on the home front during World War II — a place where every telegram is a ticking time bomb of tragedy. But young Homer (Johnny Lee) has to deliver them all the same. The Grim Reaper-like job forces him to grow up much more quickly than anyone should have to.
As you can tell, there are a number of classical references in the story, especially to Homer’s Odyssey. There is an overriding theme of coming home that pops up in a number of ways, from a kid waving at a passing, home-bound train to a soldier named Ulysses coming back from the war to a home he has never seen.
This production, efficiently directed by Ann Nieman, is earnest and well-intentioned in every regard. It treats the text with the seriousness it merits and presents itself with forthright economy.
The cast has a number of standouts. It is especially good to see David Coffee (Mr. Grogan) and Christopher Deaton (Spangler) working together in a show of this type. Both have plied the boards all around North Texas, but the shows they have shared in Fort Worth have been primarily children’s theater productions.
Coffee is one of our finest actors in nonmusical fare, but he has no trouble with the demands of this musical, which is basically a folk opera with almost no spoken dialogue. Deaton, who probably has more stage time than any other character, has the chance here to demonstrate that he is the whole package. His vocal work is as strong as his superior acting abilities.
Lee is a joy as the eager-to-please Homer. He brings an appropriate youthful exuberance to his role and sings beautifully.
Christia Mantzke employs a big, operatic voice to her role of Kate Macauley, Homer’s mother. It makes quite an impression but, at times, some of the folk-flavored tunes in the show came off as a bit over-sung.
Kristen Bond, as Beautiful Music, is problematic in a similar way. Her numbers are filled with dazzling notes, but they lack intelligible lyrics.
The singers are usually well supported by a large pit orchestra (a trademark of this house) led by music director Scott A. Eckert. The ensemble did have a few issues during the opening-night performance seen for this review, but they were of the type that should lessen with each performance.
So there are a number of fine performances gracing this production. The problem, however, is these exceptional efforts do not have much of a context.
The show is presented on a large, open stage with just a few risers and a couple of pieces of furniture to identify changes of location. The townspeople sit behind the primary players on risers like a church choir (or, more specifically, like a Greek chorus). Individuals step forward on occasion for solos, but they are usually providing support as a group. The overall effect is a bit like having a novel sung to you.
So there is little staging to speak of. For that reason, some are likely to find this musical to be more like an oratorio performance than a Broadway show.
On the whole, this production is one you desperately want to love. It is obvious that all concerned are giving this significant piece of American literature their absolute best shot.
But the music in the show, which is often highly engaging, is not so strong that it can carry the day by itself. It also does not help that the sad tale told by The Human Comedy is so familiar to us. Even those who have not read the book will see things coming long before they arrive.