American Soup by Mary Jane Hansen; directed by Bill Fortune
"...the irredeemably flawed"
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The development of a new musical is a tricky thing. To be totally successful it has to do three things well simultaneously: it must present characters who are developed through the songs they sing and that surround them; it must present characters with whom we empathize; it must present a story that reaches its ineffable conclusion with a heartfelt musical punch. As such "American Soup" is not a musical, not even with 22 musical numbers, most of them popular songs from the 1960's to the present.
And donít mistake it for a revue, a collection of popular tunes held together by a slim set of connections. This is definitely not that. This show has a strong story and meaningful relationships among its on-stage people. The songs are used to show the passing of time, to underscore the emotions of a moment. They do what the songs should do in a good musical, but this isnít a musical.
What this is, quite simply, is a living movie. Itís an Italian-American "The Way We Were" with a talented cast and an excellent band, set on the large stage of the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. It follows the life experiences of one young woman from the age of 10 to the age of 56. Maggie, or Magdalena as her father likes to call her, is the younger daughter of a Tony and Anna Marcello, owners of an Italian restaurant in Queens, New York. At fourteen she develops an interest in a local guy four years older than herself and at sixteen she persuades him to give her that all-important first kiss. He, Michael, now twenty, falls in love with her as lips touch lips.
While the story being told here is essentially Maggieís, it is Michael who provides a sort of narrative voice, telling us how old he is, indicating where the music canít quite do it, what year weíre in. The two actors playing these central roles are well-matched and manage to bring off the youthful aspects of their characters and the older qualities with equal believability. David Bunce is Michael. Mary Jane Hansen is Maggie. Hansen is also the author of the script and her husband, Will Severin, has written the music for three of the songs-one with lyrics by Hansen, is the lead male vocalist in the band and is the music director for the show.
NYSTI has developed other shows over the years that have gone on to play in other places, and this one is heading to the Theater in the Park in Queens when it finishes its run here. It has already toured to Sweden and Italy. Presumably what has been of interest to foreign audiences is the use of American music and not the portrait of American youth in the Andy Warhol period, where the "fifteen minutes of fame" goal is so all-important. That picture has made it to the screen numerous times. Here, it is tranformed into a commentary by none other than Warhol himself.
The play is set both in the restaurant, where most of the action takes place, and in an art gallery in purgatory where a long-dead Andy Warhol is preparing to paint a portrait of a man named Joe, who may be St. Joe. Andy and Michael have a fifteen second history and the author uses that moment as an emotional pole for her heroís growth as well as for a comic motivation for Andyís eventual trip out of limbo, a place heís inhabited much longer than just the years since his death. This device almost works, but is difficult to like. The "angel voice" creating the ultimate decision in an indecisive man is too trite, too easy. Michael is a man we want to see succeed, but on his own initiative and not through the sappy intrusion of a desperate soul, a Clarence popping right out of a pot-smoking version of "Itís a Wonderful Life."
There are wonderful performances in this production. Christrine Boice Saplin has a delicious scene as Sister Mary Rose and Joel Aroeste is touching as Uncle Freddy. Shannon Rafferty hold the emotional cards perfectly as Beth, Maggieís older sister. As their father, Tony, John Romeo almost steals the show away during the wedding scene. Gary Lynch plays Elvis and his rendition of "Canít Help Falling in Love" is good enough to justify the perfectly delicious staging of it by director Bill Fortune. David Girard is a lovely singer, playing John, Michael's baby brother. Shannon Johnson provides some excellent vocal work and Brandon Jones has a perfect comic scene and song for himself in "Like a Virgin."
The cast, really, is uniformly good with Hansen and Bunce both loaded down with stand-out moments, dramatic and musical. The costumes by Karen Kammer give us a sense of the passing of time and the Robert Anton set works well.
What is odd, is having Andy Warhol on stage in this upper limbo of his. Eerily played by John McGuire and oddly challenged by Ron Komoraís Joe, their scenes become almost intrusive at times and not as well integrated as they might have been. Late in the play Warhol confesses that his concept of fame for all is flawed, saying "In this business of humanity, in the end, weíre all the same." Knowing that not everyone experiences that fifteen minutes, he tells us that what weíre seeing on stage is all that we can hope for, that just being there is what itís all about. He takes away nothing, but he leaves nothing in its place. For Warhol, it is clear, the goings-on of mankind are pretty much worthless, unless there is the one thing he could never achieve during his earthly lifetime, the selfless spreading of love.
Thatís the soupy part of "American Soup." That is also the part we can never escape. Our main characters wait a long time for their fifteen minutes of love, long past their brief, shining moments of fame. These people are what they say they are: "the irredeemably flawed." Thatís what this play is about, and what this play also is.
John McGuire as Andy Warhol
David Bunce as Michael, Mary Jane Hansen as Maggie, David Girard as John, Shannon Rafferty as Beth
American Soup plays at NYSTI, Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College, Troy, NY through March 17, Weekdays at 10AM, Friday and Saturday at 8:00. Tickets are $10 to $20. For reservations or information call 518-274-3256 or go their website at www.nysti.org.