Astoria Performing Arts Center's production of The Human Comedy is likely the best imaginable possible production of the musical. Unfortunately, in their admirable quest of dusting off this neglected gem from 1984, it seems there are several good reasons it had been neglected. While Galt MacDermot's music is up to its usual caliber, with strikingly unusual harmonic and bold rhythmic and melodic ideas, and the 1984 Broadway Cast Recording has a certain cult following, the through-sung musical is less of a theatrical piece and more of a meditative oratorio about the idea of Home; the libretto by William Dumaresq is very nearly plotless, with banal lines often given more importance than they deserve, borne on a wretched recitative, e.g. "now you are completed, please be seated. Now class, tell us what you have learned from this piece of prose", and at times bursting out into nonsensical songs celebrating noses, cocoanut cream pie or waving to people on the train.
The piece is based on the 1943 novel of the same name by William Saroyan, (which he originally wrote as a screenplay, but was pulled from the project when the studio objected to the length). Saroyan's oeuvre has often been accused of sentimentality, and while that's certainly true of his work for the stage, they somehow work in any case. But The Human Comedy is entirely constructed of sentimentality (it was intended to give hope to families during the war), from adorable young children asking their parents about names and death and birds, to young men coming of age too soon in a world of war. Nominally set during WWII (though MacDermot's music sometimes jumps decades in its exuberance), the first act is mere exposition about the quaint and wholesome town of Ithaca, California, where the people are "not famous for anything.". We follow an astonishing amount of characters who live in the town (25), but mainly Homer Macauley (Aaron Libby) and his family, his mother Kate (Victoria Bundonis), sister Bess (Deidre Haren), dead father Matthew (Jan-Peter Pedross), off-in-the-army brother Marcus (Stephen Trafton), and young brother Ulysses (the adorably grating Anthony Pierini). Since he's now the man of the house, Homer gets a job at the Telegraph office with Mr. Spangler (the charming Jonathan Gregg), Mr. Grogan (Richard Vernon), and Felix (Michael Lee Jones), who are impressed with Homer's abilities to make up new songs for singing telegrams. Meanwhile, Mary Arena (Rachel Rhodes-Devey) is engaged to the aforementioned off-in-the-army Marcus. Everyone goes about their ordinary small-town lives, with hints creeping through in the form of telegrams that their boys are away dying in the war (leading to the bewildering number "I Let Him Kiss Me Once", which contrasts an upbeat 60's style pop song about a boy who's too forward, with a mother's grief on receiving notice of her son's death).
In Act II, even more boys go away to war, and we get some scenes from the War Front with Marcus and his new army buddy, black orphaned singer Tobey George (D. William Hughes). Meanwhile, Mr. Spangler is courting rich woman Diana Steed (Rayna Hickman), and worries he's not good enough to meet her parents, and is almost robbed by an effete mendicant (Philip Deyesso) to whom he had given a free telegram in Act I. Also a character listed as Beautiful Music (the luminous Marcie Henderson) wanders through the proceedings as a sort of Dionne Warwick psychopomp (presumably in an impulse to get more magical black people onstage in this very very white story).
Director Tom Wojtunik has done a great job staging the show with nods to the simplicity and presentational style of Our Town, with most of the cast sitting on wooden chairs facing the audience and watching the story when not actually engaged in action, all forming a chorus of the community as a whole. He also stages several complicated traveling scenes as Homer delivers telegrams on his bicycle.