Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008
If you are not already familiar with Chris Van Allsburg’s 1984 book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick I suggest that you get hold of a copy and read it before seeing this show. It will not take you more than 10 minutes and my local public library boasted not just one but three copies on loan. You will find it in the picture book section of the children’s room, but this is a very silly place for it to be. Not every book with more pictures than words in it is a children’s book. In fact, I think the very small children perusing the very low picture book shelves would be scared by the suggestive ambiguity of this book. But anyone over the age of eight with even an ounce of imagination will be enthralled.
The premise, and let me state at the outset that it is entirely fictitious, is that a man named Harris Burdick brought fourteen pictures, each accompanied by the title of the story it illustrated and a sentence from that story, to a publisher. He asked the publisher to look at his work and, if he liked it, Burdick would return the following day with the full text of the fourteen stories.
The publisher loved the pictures, but Harris Burdick never returned. No one knows what became of him or what the stories were that went with the pictures.
Remember this is fiction. There is no Harris Burdick and the fourteen striking charcoal illustrations, all in shades of gray (black and white is not the right description for them,) and their accompanying text are by Van Allsburg, most famous for Jumanji and his Christmas story The Polar Express.
But the book invites the reader to make up their own explanations for the pictures, the caption, and the central mystery of Harris Burdick himself. The musical currently at Barrington Stage’s Stage II is what composer Chris Miller, lyricist Nathan Tysen, and librettist and director Joe Calarco have made of them. What they have come up with is fascinating and original – and completely unlike anything the book made me imagine. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are not solved by this show, nor should they be, but it is a unique look directly into other people’s imaginations, a view we very seldom get in this life.
I recommend you look at the book before you see the show so that you have a chance to spend some time alone with the pictures, the words, and your own thoughts before you see what Miller, Tysen, and Calarco have imagined for you. Also because, even though every effort is made by scenic and production designer Brian Prather and lighting designer Chris Lee to reproduce Van Allsburg’s illustrations large enough and clear enough for the whole audience to see and understand, there is nothing like the experience of holding the book in your hand and having the luxury to study them in your own way and your own time.
I did not see last year’s workshop production of this show (it was not open to review) but Miller, Tysen and Calarco have been working on various iterations of it for more than five years now. Tysen and Miller started with a bookless song cycle – in other words they wrote a stand-alone song for each picture – but Calarco, who has also worked with the team on The Burnt Part Boys which was presented as part of BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab in 2006, suggested that they write a book and make it into a bona fide musical.
Not surprisingly, this has been the hardest thing to do. The source material itself has no beginning, middle, or end, and frankly resists being put into such a format.
I think that this version of the show is the most book-heavy. Here the team has used the mystery of Harris Burdick himself – who was he and why did he never return to the publisher with the stories – as the framing device. It seems Harris (Romain Frugé) and his wife (Catherine Porter) had a son, Archie (Ben Roseberry), who vanished from his bed one night when he was twelve. This event distresses not just the Burdicks, but their neighbors – Mitchell Jarvis, Lucia Spina, Nicole Van Giesen, and Roseberry again, doubling as Spina nerdy brother who has moved in with her and her family after being fired from his job as an exterminator.
A great many of Van Allsburg’s eerily disturbing pictures become illustrations of the mental anguish suffered by parents missing a child, children missing a playmate (Van Giesen doubles as Molly, a friend of Archie’s and the daughter of the adult woman she plays), neighbors torn by suspicion and by the guilt you feel when your child survives while another does not.
On the other hand some of Van Allsburg’s pictures become exhilarating illustrations Harris creates for a storybook he writes about Archie’s adventures in search of a golden harp. That’s where he sends his missing son – off on marvelous adventures in magical places – while his wife clings to mortal memories and refuses to move on.
And here is the problem with this latest version of ...Harris Burdick. It is very sad. Especially since it is a show that will be attended by families together, it could use a lot more fun and magic and a lot less adult angst. At the very least it could use a happy ending. Let Archie really be off on a magical adventure and let his final wish of the golden harp to send him home, come true. This is the theatre, after all, not real life. Anything can happen.
While I marveled at the artistry of the creative teams and the performers in the solemn, grown-up bits (I will never look at the illustration entitled Missing in Venice the same way again) I enjoyed the fun, magic bits the best. Hence I got a kick out of Van Giesen’s delightful turns as young Molly in the numbers Oscar and Alphonse and Just Dessert, and Roseberry not as Archie (in general I don’t like watching adults playing children, and what between this show and ...Spelling Bee BSC is presenting me with rather a snootful of that dangerous genre) but as the nerdy ex-exterminator brother singing Under the Rug.
Van Giesen is equally appealing in her adult role as Molly’s mother and the wife of Jarvis’ character, known only as The Husband. It is Jarvis’ character who becomes so consumed by fear and guilt over Archie’s disappearance that he keeps impossibly tight reins on his daughter and completely ignores his wife. Again, Jarvis did a nice job with this very human man expressing his love and grief, but I liked him best when he played a big bird and one third of a giantess.
Spina gets her big moment to shine as “The Baddest Babysitter” Miss Burrs in “Just Desserts.” (Can someone tell me why the word Dessert is spelled wrong in Van Allsburg’s book? This has been bugging the heck out of me because I am such a Word Woman.)
Like Jarvis, Porter, mostly gets to express her love, anger, and grief, as Archie’s mother, but she does so poignantly and her songs are some of the most beautiful in the score. Miller’s music is enigmatic – not traditional show tunes, slightly more operatic, both beautiful and dissonant at once – and a perfect fit for Tysen’s words.
Frugé centers the show nicely as Harris. He speaks and sings less than the rest of the cast, but is always on stage writing or drawing, or rearranging the set so that the next mystery can be presented.
Calarco, who may be going back to the keyboard for yet another draft of the book after this run ends, has directed the show ingeniously on Prather’s inventive set, which appears stark white and bare, but is not. Prather and costume designer Elizabeth Flauto have kept Van Allsburg’s shades of gray throughout, which makes the occasional intrusion by Lee from a pink or blue lighting gel quite shocking. I just loved the way this show looked. I kept marveling at the costumes which were both completely normal and absolutely colorless at the same time (yes, I know that gray is a color, but you’ll see what I mean.
Even though it is sad and quite grown-up in patches, I would encourage you to bring children 8 and up – after you’ve all had a chance to look at the book first. I brought my 12-year-old nephew who agreed that it was a sad play, but enjoyed it nonetheless and was impressed with how revelatory it is to get to see what someone else sees when you both look at the same picture.
The Barrington Stage Company Musical Theatre Lab production of the The Mysteries of Harris Burdick runs through July 5 at the new Stage 2 space, The VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with NO intermission and is suitable for ages 8 and up.
The performance schedule is: Wednesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 4pm and 8pm, Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 for the first two previews, while other performances are $25-$30. Student & senior tickets for the 4pm Sat. matinees are $15. Remember to bring your ID to qualify for this discount. Pay What You Can Night for 35 and Under, Friday, June 20 at 7:30pm. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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