The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, book by Joe Calarco, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, music by Chris Miller, based on the book by Chris van Allsburg. Directed by Joe Calarco.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Best friends for almost ten minutes."
Six characters in search of a story: a father and mother; a sister and brother; a husband and wife; children; a giant; a sea captain; two caterpillars; a harp: all the elements of a modern fairy tale with classic roots. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are deeper than they seem and the biggest of the unknown qualities here is "Who is Harris Burdick?" Is he a real person long since gone missing? Is he a myth created to sell picture books? Is he, somehow or other, the man in the musical, at its center and in charge of its conclusion? How close to the truth, if there is a mystery at all here, have the creators of Barrington Stage Company’s latest musical theater lab project come to that truth? There are some mysteries we cannot easily solve. Until July 5, local audiences will be debating the solutions as this show plays out its sometimes less than subtle theories before them.
The trio of writers involved in this project have worked up a perfectly delightful theory about the mysterious pen and ink drawings, accompanied by titles and a single sentence or phrase, that have graced coffee tables and nurseries alike for nearly twenty years. They have opened a book of their own and in a through-composed - that is to say nearly completely sung - show they trot that theory of theirs out for all to see. I think it works fine until they fall back on the classic fairytale concept to justify the harp. At that point the nearly sublime becomes the clearly ridiculous.
Archie Smith, a twelve-year old kid, goes missing and his parents spend more than two years dealing with his disappearance. His father, Harris, creates wonderfully fanciful drawings in which his own son, neighbor’s kids and his own half-demented wife appear. Then he creates stories which reflect the pictures and through them he tries to conceive a tale of adventure and misadventure in which his missing son is the hero. It’s a wonderful conceit - a father coping with such a loss through fiction and art. However, when magic beans and Jack, the Giant Killer enter the story it turns into something almost too silly to bear.
The pictures themselves could take the imagination in so many untried directions that to use something so trivial seems strange and unreasonable. This is made even more unacceptable when you hear the show, hear the music and the fine lyrics written by Nathan Tysen. There is an almost seamless blend of sounds in the piano and the six voices in this production. It lulls and engages the mind and the heart. Even six part singing - each with a different melody and lyric - has a grace and a charm here that is hard to beat, even the best-known compositions of other princes of the theater such as Stephen Sondheim and William Finn. These young men have their forebears on the rails with this score. To waste all that on a variant of the Grimm Brothers is dirty, rotten shame.
There are such good performances in this show that it almost doesn’t matter what the material has to offer. Romain Frugé plays the father/artist/author and his quiet, underplayed scenes are so very gentle that you want to reach out and touch this man, hold him, pat him gently on the shoulder and offer him comfort. It is a beautifully crafted performance. To watch him tolerate, understand and bring solace to his wife, played with fervor and strength by Catherine Porter, is quite worth the price of a ticket. Her zeal in her belief that her son will return to her is exhausting.
The neighbors, a brother and sister, are played for every bizarre possibility by Lucia Spina and Ben Roseberry. If every musical needs quirky characters then this one is well rewarded with these two and with their performances. Roseberry also plays the missing Archie and does so quite winningly. Spina takes on one of the fairytale persona and is so startlingly different that she actually amazes.
Husband and wife, parents of Archie’s girl friend, are brought to life by Mitchell Jarvis and Nicole Van Giesen. He is handsome, fervent, sometimes frightening and sometimes endearing. His overprotective Dad is quite the compulsive character and his dynamic bird, piloted by Archie, is lovely. Van Giesen plays both wife and daughter, adult and child, with equal grace.
Calarco, the author, turns into Calarco, the director and he knows exactly how to move his people about, change their ages and their characteristics and how to handle the odd, but workable set given to him by the company. He doesn’t draw thin furrows with a subtle substance. Instead he works in broad strokes and long, fluid lines. He moves his one-act show along with pace and clarity.
Musical Director Vadim Feichtner handles the score well from the piano. Elizabeth Flauto’s period costumes are perfect for the late 1950s/early 1960s and the unusual Brian Prather set, with its three picture frames and its side pipes add immeasurably to the enjoyment of this new musical.
I feel certain that more work needs to be done to make this show the excellent stage piece it should be. Right now it hovers between genius and fairytale, adult and kiddie show. It has yet to find its form and metier, but when it does it should be unstoppable.
Nicole Van Giesen; photo: Kevin Sprague
Romain Fruge as Harris Burdick; photo: Kevin Sprague
Lucia Spina, Van Giesen, Ben Roseberry; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage II, at the VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street, in Pittsfield, MA through July 5. Tickets are $25-$30. For reservations or information call the box office at 413-236-8888.