by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
Calvin Berger is the Brady Bunch of musical comedy.
I was twelve when Brady Bunch first came on the air. In real life I am a year young than Maureen McCormick (Marcia) and a year older than Eve Plumb (Jan). While I was never fooled into thinking the show was well written or well acted (or well directed or well designed for that matter,) I liked to watch it because the Bradys were just average, nice middle-class kids who had average, nice middle-class problems like sibling rivalry, getting braces, and getting caught telling lies. I could relate to that. Luckily I didn’t have to deal with drug addiction, rape, life threatening illnesses, pregnancy and/or abortion like the “kids” on soap operas and after-school specials, all of whom were played by twenty-somethings anyway, but I did fight with my sister and have a crush on Davy Jones. Dull as the Bradys were, they were dull like me, and it made me happy to watch real kids my age deal with the things that real kids my age dealt with.
Even though I am no longer a kid, watching Calvin Berger made me happy in that same way. It wasn’t the greatest musical I had ever seen, but it was fun and nicely presented and at its core was a chronic adolescent question that everyone over the age of eight can relate to: Will I be loved? At the performance I attended everyone, young and old, was having a great time because they either were at that place in their lives or remembered it vividly.
Yes, the four actors on stage are twenty-somethings, but they are all remarkably appealing and talented and do an excellent job of passing for high-schoolers. In fact the two best things about this production are the cast and the lyrics. Barry Wyner (1976- ) has written the book, music and lyrics for this show, a fine accomplishment which won him the Jerry Bock Award, the Richard Rodgers Award, and an IRNE nomination for best new play. His music is pleasant but not memorable, while his lyrics and dialogue are smart and funny and do a lot to move character and plot forward in a nimble fashion.
Calvin Berger is a modern teen-aged twist on the Cyrano story. Each of the four characters believes they have at least one major flaw of face, figure, and personality that makes them unlovable. Calvin (David Perlman) thinks his nose is too big. His best friend, Bret* (Gillian Goldberg), thinks her butt is too big. Matt (Aaron Tveit), the new kid at school, can’t put three words together into a sentence. And Calvin’s beloved girl-next-door Rosanna (Elizabeth Lundberg) worries that she is nothing but a pretty face. Calvin and Bret are completely off-base – his nose and her butt are not as big as all that. Matt has a real and painful problem being tongue-tied and unable to express himself verbally. And Rosanna is actually right, she is nothing but a pretty face, despite her best efforts at doing something meaningful for homeless babies. But none of these real or perceived flaws make these four young people unlovable, as they all discover by the finale when they are happily coupled.
Wyner has created a simple, safe world for his young characters to find themselves. No one loses their virginity, or even their dignity for more than a few minutes. Act I ends with relationships fractured, but over the course of Act II the kids all mend fences and discover ways in which their strengths and weaknesses can be combined to make them each more than the sum of their good and bad parts.
This is an astoundingly talented and appealing cast. I really cannot remember when I have seen a show so perfectly cast (kudos to McCorkle Casting, Ltd.), or a cast and director (Stephen Terrell) who rendered its characters so lovingly. Perlman is the dullest of the lot, and he’s pretty darned good. His real problem is that he is obviously too old for the role and he is also rather too handsome. But he sings very well (they all do) and does his very best to convince us that he’s 17 and nerdly. I liked him.
Lundberg, who I believe is the youngest cast member, is just as impossibly, breath-takingly wholesome-girl-next-door pretty as Rosanna is meant to be. She has that kind of amazingly smooth and flawless skin that causes us normal, pore-ridden folks to gnash our teeth (the quarters were pretty close in the Berkshire Athenaeum basement and she was wearing fairly skimpy frocks, I don’t think that kind of perfection could have been faked under those circumstances). Lundberg brought great warmth to Rosanna, and, like all the cast, sang divinely. No one was miked and no one needed to be miked. My idea of acoustic heaven.
Goldberg is just adorable as Bret. She is the only cast member to be held over from the original production of Calvin Berger last summer at Gloucester Stage, and I can see why. I cannot imagine another actress in this role. Goldberg radiates an honest intelligence and heart, the kind that renders us average mortals attractive. And she is very attractive, not in the perfection of Lundberg, but in the lively reality of a healthy young woman. She is the only non-equity actor in the cast but I am sure that will not remain the case for long.
Tveit is already a minor Broadway star, having played Hairspray’s Link Larkin on tour and on Broadway to great acclaim and female swooning. I can see why. I could not take my eyes off of him. He is physically attractive, yes, but so very lively and talented. Wyner has given poor tongue-tied Matt all the funny lines, and Tviet plays them with blushing innocence which renders them hilarious. With only four players there are no big dance numbers, but Tveit makes up for that by playing Matt’s physicality to the hilt. He is constantly in motion, leaping and dancing and cart-wheeling and gyrating, a perfect release for a young man who can’t express himself verbally.
Together Perlman and Tveit make a winning team, and their chemistry is more crucial to the plotline than that between the guys and their girls. Lundberg and Goldberg don’t get a scene/song together until late in the second act, but Perlman and Tveit bond in Act I with their energetic duet We’re the Man when they realize that by combining their strengths they can create that “special someone” Rosanna is pining for. They reprise the song and their bond when they team up in Act II when Matt offers to give Calvin a fashion make-over. The time when they were feuding seemed dead to me, but as soon as Calvin and Matt joined forces once again I knew we were on the road to that happy ending.
Costume designer Amela Baksic has crafted costumes that look like what real teenagers would wear. Goldberg’s final outfit really transforms her from a slightly ugly duckling to a swan without overdoing it. I have always loathed the final scenes of Grease where pretty little Sandy wins her man by piling on the make-up and donning skin-tight leather. Bret simply puts on a flattering dress, a pair of strappy sandals, and lets down her hair and she looks like the pretty girl she has always been but Calvin has just never noticed.
Scott Pinkney’s lighting does much more to delineate the space in the Athenaeum’s basement than Brian Prather’s rather weak set. The long narrow rectangular playing space with the audience on three sides (two long sides and one short), which worked so very well for last summer’s road trip musical The Burnt Part Boys seems unwieldy here. I was seated at the corner where one long side and the short side met, and I found myself frequently craning my neck in order to see down to the far end of the playing space.
Musical director Justin Paul has created new piano and vocal arrangements of Wyner’s score that sounded good to me. Paul plays the piano furiously in a small, box-like “stage” built on the fourth side of the playing area. A banner behind him reads “RHS” and I wondered for a while if we were back at Rydell High (named after 1950’s heart-throb Bobby Rydell) of Grease fame, but no, apparently the “R” stands for Rostand, as in Edmund Rostand, author of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. Maybe that should have been mentioned or at the very least spelled out on the banner? It was a nice touch, but I only learned of it by reading reviews of the premiere production of Calvin Berger last summer.
While this show won’t change the course of American musical theatre, it is wonderful family entertainment, especially for families with “tweens.” I know my younger son, who is well past the tween stage, still talks to me regularly about his worries that he will never find someone to love him – ironically one of his issues is a big nose, just like Calvin. He didn’t come with me, and I wish had because it would have made for a perfect excuse to talk, once again, about how people find each other attractive for reasons that have nothing to do with noses or butts or the lack thereof. Bring your youngsters and enjoy reliving your terrible tweens while opening a window of opportunity for them to talk about theirs.
The Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab production of Calvin Berger runs through July 14 at at BSC’s Stage II space, The Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is a wonderful family show for ages 8 and up. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
* An homage to Henri Le Bret (1618-1710), close personal friend to both the real and fictional Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). The real Le Bret cared for Cyrano during his last years, wrote his biography, and edited (some would say destroyed) many of his writings after his death.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007