After his huge hit with Hair, Galt McDermott turned his attention from the Vietnam war to the Second World War and a musical adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy.
It was a flop on Broadway, closing within a couple of weeks in the 1980s. A brave choice then for the Young Vic to open its 40th birthday season, especially given the fact that a cast of 60 local community members join the principles in an epic staging.
It turns out to be an inspired choice, a sweeping Southern folk opera.
Set during the Second World War in a fictional Californian town, The Human Comedy looks at the impact of war on one family and the wider community. The impacts of war are a theme that McDermott looked at in the earlier Hair, but here it’s a much darker tone as the human cost takes its toll, seen through the eyes of a young boy who questions where his father, older brothers and the rest of the young men of the town have gone.
Though described as a musical the score is more operatic in tone. A Southern honky-tonk opera with echoes of Porgy & Bess and Carmen Jones mixes with jazz, blues and gospel. Some of William Dumaresq’s lyrics contain some of the worst entries from the rhyming dictionary but McDermott’s score genuinely moves and soars. Some moments are especially haunting, a series of apricot packing crates transformed into flag draped coffins, an older brother’s final letter to his younger brother and a gospel backed cascade of telegrams to the bereaved, all bring a lump to the throat.
Jon Bausor’s impressive design and Bruno Poet’s wonderfully sultry atmospheric lighting frame the piece perfectly allowing director John Fulljames to utilise this mammoth cast to great effect.
This is truly an ensemble piece and the spot on choral sound rivals that of any professional opera chorus. Among a universally strong cast highlights from the principal cast members are Helen Hobson’s stoical Ma, a rousing Brenda Edwards and a mature beyond his years performance from Theo Stevenson as the young son questioning the vanishing youth.
If some work can be done on some of the lyrics this production could rescue The Human Comedy to the operatic repertoire. With such a vivid sound, the Young Vic would be wise to get this cast into the recording studio now to capture a definitive production. A truly moving experience.