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Review Round-up: Critics Tickled by Human Comedy

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Galt MacDermot and William Dumaresq’s The Human Comedy was a famous flop on Broadway in the 80s. This has not deterred the Young Vic, however, from giving this little-known musical a second chance.

The story, created by William Saroyan, takes place during the Second World War in small-town California and centres on young Homer. Too young to join his brothers on the front line, Homer has the task of deliveing the town’s telegrams. Including, that is, those carrying tragic news from the War Department.

MacDermot – who is best known as the composer of Hair – wrote a score made up of gospel, pop, swing and folk numbers and John Fulljames’ production includes a community chorus of 80 drawn from the local area, on top of the 13-strong professional cast which includes Brenda Edwards (We Will Rock You) and Jos Slovick (Spring Awakening).

The Human Comedy opened on 13 September 2010 and continues at the Young Vic until 18 September.

Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “This sentimental, irresistible sung-through musical is a joyous anthology of gospel, blues, jitterbug, swing and ballad, and another triumph for the theatre’s ongoing collaboration with John Fulljames’ Opera Group, this time co-producing with the Watford Palace. Galt MacDermot may be a one-hit wonder for Hair, but this skilful, simple 1984 score - each number in turn leaving you wanting more - is a thorough delight, suggesting an American musical version of The Railway Children crossed with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town ... There’s a terrific eight-piece band led by Phil Bateman, a knock-out turn from Brenda Edwards and a great design by Jon Bausor. A stage full of coffins draped in the American flag has an eerie resonance, too.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “This is something special, and all the more so since it threatened to be an embarrassing flop … Watching this outstanding production, directed by John Fulljames … that fate seems unfair … Although there are a few moments that feel maudlin and manipulative, the show’s humanity and sense of community win the day … There are glimpses of deep pain in William Dumaresq’s libretto … Meanwhile the powerful singing of the chorus, in a work that often feels more like an oratorio than a traditional musical, sends shivers racing down the spine … Among the cast Helen Hobson brings a profound sense of clenched grief to the mother, Jos Slovick is deeply affecting as the fresh-faced telegram boy, and Jordi Fray touches the heart as his younger brother who cannot understand why those he loves keeps leaving him … But the whole ensemble shines in a deeply felt production that seems especially timely as the death toll rises in Afghanistan.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “The Human Comedy is not so much a musical as a folk opera. An adaptation of a schmaltzy story by William Saroyan, once America’s most popular writer, it’s a patriotic coming-of-age tale … In the first half there are moments of charm, and in the second notes of poignancy. But John Fulljames’ ambitious production never soars … The chief problem is that the story lacks a clearly defined spine. Rather than the narrative rigour of a strong book, it has William Dumaresq’s disjointed libretto, which is full of simply terrible rhymes … It ought to be a recommendation that the music is by Galt MacDermot … Yet though Phil Bateman’s small band plays with conviction, MacDermot’s melodies often seem ill-suited to the subject matter … There’s excellent singing by Brenda Edwards, a touching performance from Jos Slovick as Homer, and robust work by Tom Robertson, together with a courageously bare design by Jon Bausor … However, none of this redeems the material, which has sentimentality where it should have heart.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - “A flawed, affecting show by Hair composer, Galt MacDermot, this piece flopped on Broadway in 1984, but it fits the bill here to an almost parodic degree in its celebration of the healing power of community and the unifying nature of song ... MacDermot pays tribute to the spirit of the townsfolk with a score that sounds like a hymn to the eclectic wealth of US popular music. Rapturously sung here to the accompaniment of a dynamic band, it slips between swing, blues, gospel, folk, the hymn-book and jazz. John Fulljames's warm, rousing production – sparely staged with wooden-crate terraces for the scalp-tingling chorus – movingly draws out the underlying melancholy. Playing Homer's widowed mother, Helen Hobson sings with an un-maternal aggressive edge as though her stoic wisdom has been wrested from near-despair.”

  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) - “From the first warm notes of the band and the first capering children, this show demands love ... From every corner come 100 voices : 80 South London volunteers back 20 professionals. 'The people of whom we sing / In a town in California / not famous for anything'. An invisible train hoots, a little boy jumps on a box and waves, up come the goosebumps. Even the first tear ... If you back off nervously from down-home tales of Main Street USA - or if you jib at the fact that the composer Galt MacDermot gave us drippy-hippy Hair - have no fear. This one ... is no schlock ... John Fulljames’ direction is never fidgety, his players sometimes moving freely, sometimes still and focused. The set economically evokes time and place; some singers are better than others. But oh, the chorus! Every emotion swells into a great human instrument, a vocal miracle of harmony - not overpolished but raw with reality and the joy of the volunteers.”

    - Elizabeth Davis & Theo Bosanquet

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