Thursday December 13, 2012

After a year of angst over the possibility of homelessness, Oldcastle Theatre Company opened its new Main St. venue in Bennington with a block party for the ages. The intimacy of the modular 140-seat L-shape audience configuration was evident before, during and after the world premiere of a new musical, "Northern Boulevard."

Based on a story by Kevin Brofsky, the show was directed by Oldcastle co-founder Eric Peterson, with music and lyrics by longtime Broadway and Hollywood stalwart Carleton Carpenter, a Bennington native.

Set from 1941 to 1981 in a Queens deli, we find Jerry (Gil Brady) and Roslyn (Cotton Wright), joined by Roslyn's parents Saul (Richard Howe) and Celia (Christine Decker), and Jerry's former flame Dorothy (Jessica Raaum). Rounding out the cast are son Michael/the young man (Patrick Thomas Spencer), Margo/Connie (Amanda Elise Garcia), and four unforgettable ethnic landladies (Cheryl Howard).

Brady and Wright were the consummate couple grappling with the passage of time in their marriage and the credibility of increasing wisdom, even when making missteps. Their melodic repartee was spot on. Raaum's younger-girl permissive streak was tantalizingly palpable, and her chemistry with Brady sizzling. If one solo song stood out for its belting excellence, it was Raaum's rendition of the theme, "Northern Boulevard."

The show's two younger actors, Spencer and hometown girl Garcia, delivered sound characterizations, as well as some deliciously deft dancing. The future looks bright for both; regional stage fans should hope to see them again, soon.

Beloved Oldcastle veteran Decker began the show as a downer and exited that way, filling the role of glass-half-empty mother-in-law flawlessly. Her facial expressions of judgment and revulsion spanned the generations - strikingly familiar as close to home.

Howe deserves tremendous kudos. Of all the characters, his aging process was the most believable, and his physical acting as an old man shouted out wobbly pain, and vexation of the willing but incapable. Howe's monologue on the frustration of nursing home life rang loudest, clearest, and truest of all the night's script.

Finally, show-stealer Cheryl Howard was - as her father the late Yankees great Elston Howard - in a league of her own. What actor wouldn't salivate to take on Jewish, Irish, Italian and black landladies, all in one show? Not only were Howard's caricatures raucous nods to pop culture stereotypes, but everyone could tell the woman was having just as much, if not more, fun than the rest of us. That says it all: Her casting was a stroke of genius.

Carl Sprague's set was austere yet artistic, the bar stools a centerpiece spanning the decades. Lights by Keith Chapman were nuanced in enhancing the emotional pull of several key numbers. Period costumes by Deborah Peterson conveyed maturation vital to the story's development, as did the temporally evolving choreography of Ron Ray. Live music direction and piano performance by Jeffrey Buchsbaum, assisted by Mike Chapman on drums, was itself worth the price of admission, and kept feet tapping all evening.

The show ran just over two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

There are several great literary themes, and the trick for any writer is how to tell the tale. Brofsky offers up a poignant portrayal of one seminal subject - the cycle of life - and his choice of setting and characters is quintessentially American: Many hued candles in the melting pot.

Carpenter's superlative musical adaptation was alive with pizzaz and rife with clever lyrics. This included a salute to the late Broadway mogul, David Merrick. Some inside baseball for audiences: In 1944, Merrick, a rookie producer himself, staged a two week bomb, "Bright Boy," in which Carpenter, then a 17-year-old Bennington High School unknown, got his first professional acting break while auditioning on a lark. Cycle of life, indeed: A cerebral touch in Mr. Carpenter's lyrics.

Perhaps the one major fault of this show is that it was impossible for certain characters to have major make-up turnarounds in the short breaks between scenes, so their change of costumes and hair modifications often had to demonstrate the aging process: The progression of fashion and coif from one era to another.

Past those issues, however, that the cast of "Northern Boulevard" pulled this off with only typical opening night timing glitches, after just two full weeks of rehearsals, was impressive. But throw in the musical element and the maiden voyage of a venerable theater's facility, and everyone at Oldcastle should take a deep, well-deserved bow long after this block party's last call.

"Northern Boulevard" runs through Dec. 23 at Oldcastle Theatre Company at 331 Main St. in Bennington. For tickets and information call 802-447-0564 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is the Stage Names drama critic and an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com