Envisioning a new musical play -- something not based on an already familiar source, or any source for that matter, but completely new -- is akin to creating a new world. To open their new theater, a fine re-invention of an older space, Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vermont, has invited in a team of creative people to do just that -- envision and create a brand new work.
Entitled "Northern Boulevard" it is the story of a young Jewish couple who purchase an old soda fountain on the main shopping and transportation drag in Queens, New York and operate it for forty years through a succession of political and personal difficulties. Forty years goes by in a flash, two hours and eleven minutes, and that is both the joy and the difficulty of the show.
An extremely talented company of players and an equally talented group of creative artists have pooled their resources to make this a perfect evening of theater.
Carl Sprague's set sparkles with an almost never-changing reality. Deborah Peterson's period costumes keep us in touch with the era, decade, and even the exact year in which each scene is set. Keith Chapman has designed the lighting to highlight both the emotions involved and the location and time of day.
Director Eric Peterson has lent an artist's eye to the relationships and dynamics of the play. Ron Ray has managed not to let his choreographer's instincts lose the reality of the moment while still managing to move people in a pleasant and charming manner through the musical numbers.
Kevin Brofsky, in creating his characters, remains true to the initial concept of each one of them. For instance Celia Gilbert, played by Christine Decker, is an overbearingly critical mother whose son-in-law can never do anything well enough from her first scene to her last.
Brofsky is similarly strong with every character maintaining his or her initial presence, as shown through the director's control and each actor's understanding, right to the end of the show. While a wonderful conceit, it doesn't allow for much growth over the forty-year span of the play and that, for me, was a real problem.
Roslyn Simon adores her husband at the start and adores her husband at the end. Jerry Simon is committed to his business throughout the show, reluctant to ever let it go. Even though he slips in his relationship with his wife, she is really the only woman he loves. And even though she moves in the direction of a divorce she never leaves him, throws him out or ignores his needs.
Their story, at the center of the musical, has its ups and downs but the two of them never really change. That predictability is the play's principal fault. It is the lengthy episodic nature of the construction that keeps us from watching the subtleties of lives lived, but we do follow them through forty years and that's a long, long time.
More often than not in a show like this it is the songs that give us the depth we don't find in the dialogue. Carleton Carpenter's songs bring us the joy and the blues, the highs and the lows, the comedy and the drama of the piece. Carpenter, though, is no Sondheim. He is no Richard Rodgers, no Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein. When the show calls for a light and amusing number, an old-fashioned Broadway-style piece of fluff, he provides what is needed.
When the show needs a dark moment of contemplation he gives it up in the music but not always in the lyrics. Sometimes rhymes feel forced. Sometimes they appear too facile and clever. Sometimes the song is just right for the period in which it is sung, tonally and emotionally reminiscent of something else, but never derivative. However, like the book of the show, the score is not quite there.
Roslyn Simon is played with style and a forthrightness that is perfectly delivered by Cotton Wright. Her wide smile and her blonde hair make her the perfect charmer and the equally perfect target love. She sings beautifully and emotionally in two of her songs (titles mine, for the program provides no information here): "Near To Me," a duet with the waitress Dorothy Fisher, in Act One, and a Kander and Ebb sounding blues, "Whoa, Baby," in Act Two.
Her husband, Jerry, is played with an eerie credibility by Gil Brady. I say eerie because except for his costumes, the man never seems to age. He is almost never different from the man we first meet. His ambition, his love, his devotion to those things which are his, and his hair color, never vary. He has two moments, and I mean moments, where something else takes over from these things, but they are quick and seem to have no effect on his character's goals. Brady is charming and delightful in every way, but it is hard to sustain an audience's interest when nothing changes. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, "he runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
Dorothy Fisher, the woman who almost but not quite, changes everything, is played to absolute perfection by Jessica Raaum. She has a powerful and lyrical voice and her musical numbers are delightful.
The Simon's young son, Michael, is played by Patrick Thomas Spencer, and even though he seems quite gay in his first scene (excellent musical number here for him and his grandfather: "Master, Master"), it is his growth and his marriage that reveals the man he could become and Spencer gives us both sides of the character perfectly.
Roslyn's parents Saul and Celia Gilbert are played by Christine Decker and Richard Howe. Decker is overwhelmingly consistent. Even at the point where we can believe she has changed her attitude and her concept of her son-in-law she charges in nostrils flaring and judgement intact.
Howe, on the other hand is a marvel of loving consistency until his wife has passed away. After that he becomes a liberal and a lover of life in all its possibilities. His is the only character that exhibits the result of living through the length of the show. Both of these excellent actors bring credibility to their characters, both sing and act and move to perfection.
Amanda Elise Garcia plays Connie, Michael's wife, very nicely. It is her final scene with her in-laws that could bring some real change to both Jerry and Roslyn, but the author hasn't given us that, even though at first it would seem he has.
There are four landladies, the women who own the building in which Jerry founds his restaurant, his delicatessen. Mrs. Golden is an aging New York Jewess; Mrs. McSherry is either Irish (which the dialogue would indicate) or Scottish (which her accent would indicate); Mrs. D'Angelo whose appearance is so very Sophia Loren; Mrs. Washington, who is beige-colored Black.
They are all played with gusto and zeal by Cheryl Howard. Even here, with four very different possibilities, the authors have made them all into one consistent landlady. None of them give the Simon's any pause, or any difficulties though it is Mrs. Washington whose congeniality opens up Saul Gilbert's future. Howard and Howe have a delicious duet, "Let's Not Miss the Boat" which is a highlight of Act Two.
Comedy, rather than tragedy, facility rather than ability, mark this work as flawed. WWII, Vietnam, Eisenhower and Kennedy, infidelity and death, all take their toll but leave no indelible marks on these people.
In the end "Northern Boulevard" entertains like a good salad fills the tummy. It is a very enjoyable experience but ultimately leaves you hungry for something more.
"Northern Boulevard" runs through Dec. 23 at Oldcastle Theatre Company’s fine new home at 331 Main Street in Bennington, Vermont. For info and tickets, call 802-447-1267 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org.