By Philip Pearce
THE WESTERN STAGE deserves a medal for its continuing commitment to hometown hero John Steinbeck. A 2013 version of his Grapes of Wrath proved that with inspired planning and imagination a community theater could move a big cast through a major literary epic in a way that worked even within the small confines of the TWS Studio Theatre. And more than twenty years on the company’s massive, three-part East of Eden remains a landmark in Central California theater history.
I wanted so much to like the latest effort to keep the Steinbeck torch burning bright, with a revival of a short-lived 1948 musical version of his Of Mice and Men. I wish Of Mice and Men A Musical Drama was a better example of the glories of the novel or the dramatic resources of Western Stage.
Program notes offer a summary of the adaptation’s brief, unlucky history in the musical theater world of the mid 1950s. Workshopped and fine tuned by an enthusiastic New York journalist named Ira Bilowit, who wrote script and lyrics in partnership with composer Alfred Brooks, the show tried out at the Provincetown Playhouse, but the day after its Off-Broadway opening, a newspaper strike hit New York and all the city’s newspapers were shut down. The program blames the strike for the musical’s disappointing six week run. Maybe. It’s always hard to prove a negative.
What seemed clear at last weekend’s opening night at Hartnell was that Steinbeck’s classic gains little if anything from a sporadic sprinkling of vocal music. There are two kinds of songs that turn a familiar literary work into a meaningful stage musical. A show like My Fair Lady does it with songs that reveal character and motivate plot developments in tuneful production pieces we whistle the whole way home from the theater. On the other hand, a play like Next to Normal, which closed last weekend at Paper Wing, serves up songs we aren’t likely to remember as musical “numbers,” but which, while they happen, penetrate deeper than the dialogue can into the hopes and sufferings of the characters who sing them. But the songs in this hopeful Western Stage production neither sparkle (which they admittedly shouldn’t) nor do they probe deeply. Two of them, “Wanna Feel at Home” and “Candy’s Lament,” make an effort at meaningful character monologue, but neither quite manages it. The rest of the score tends to follow an appropriate enough rural square dance rhythm and attitude marked by western farmyard sentiments with a repetitive sameness that begins to pall by the middle of Act 1. Even the central theme of the yearning of field worker pals George and Lennie (Colin St John and Scott Free) for a place of their own where they’ll “live off of the fat of the land” falls into the overriding barn-dance pattern.
The trouble is that Steinbeck’s original novel is in itself a superb piece of stagecraft. Read the book again and you realize that each chapter is as tightly plotted as a play script. There’s a single setting, characters and their situations are established chiefly through meaningful dialogue and action, not through explanations from the author. It’s said that George S Kaufman not only directed the original stage version back in 1937 but adapted the fictional text for the theater. Maybe so, but a look Steinbeck’s novel makes it pretty clear Kaufman had an easy piece of work on his hands. The basic story is so clear, so inevitable, so masterfully built toward its tragic climax that it’s hard to think even a seasoned composer/librettist team, let alone a couple of hopeful newcomers like Bilowit and Brooks, could add anything really worthwhile in the way of music.
It’s possibly significant that the most interesting sequence of the current show at Western Stage is one entirely devoid of music. Here, the occupants of the bunkhouse sink into a long torturous silence as Noah Esquivel’s enraged Carlson steps outside with the task of putting a bullet through the brain of the ancient, stinking dog who has been the one friend and comfort of their aged colleague Candy (William J Wolak). Director Jon Patrick Selover knows the power of a pause and he extends this one, withholding the inevitable gunshot into what became, for me, the dramatic high point of this production.
A major disappointment is the crucial scene in which the lumbering, mentally retarded Lennie accidentally kills the unhappy wife of the ranch foreman Curly (Velvet Piini). In Steinbeck’s book and play, these two wounded souls meet in a hayloft, offer slivers of meditated grief and confusion. Neither hears or understands what the other is saying. Yet both find a weird comfort in just the physical presence of another suffering human. In Bilowit’s script and under Selover’s direction, this searching central event is brief, flat and almost perfunctory.
I still think The Western Stage deserves credit, if only from theater buffs, for resurrecting an interesting footnote in the history of John Steinbeck’s shifting relationship with the American theater.
The cast in Salinas do a competent job, with a laudable emphasis on rough character rather than vocal gymnastics in singing the songs. But the pervading hoe-down tone of the score and a script with a succession of lively ensemble numbers (“Curly’s Wife Will Probably Be” and “Saturday Night”) tend to distance the audience from the characters on stage and turn an authentic piece of American folk tragedy into a farmyard comedy melodrama.
Photo by Richard Green