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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the December 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Lies and Legends’

Are you "Christmas Carol"-ed and "Nutcracker"-ed

out? Try Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater for something

different this holiday season. "Lies and Legends, the musical

stories of Harry Chapin," is a show for all seasons, perfectly

suited to this theater’s intimate, cabaret-like setting.

Lies or Legends? Theater-goers needn’t bother trying to decipher which

is which: the title is all-encompassing, to cover the many and varied

subjects, fact or fiction, of Chapin’s popular songs. Most are in

the folk tradition with guitar accompaniment. Subjects range, geographically,

from the East Coast to San Francisco and the area in between, but

could be anyplace in America. Often full of anguish, regret, and loneliness,

but not always, they present a kaleidoscope of American lives.

"Lies and Legends" was first produced by Off-Broadstreet in

1988. After frequent requests, says OBT co-producer Julia Thick, the

theater decided to mount a new production of this story-telling musical.

Then as now Harris Goodman appears in the production. Now he is joined

by three other talented OBT veterans, Jennifer East, Tom Orr, and

Pam Linkin. The four play, sing, and dance all the parts in this stellar

production.

Don’t expect a drama. Instruments of the five-piece band are not sunk

in an orchestra pit or set off to the side, but are spread across

center stage. The musicians, all in country casual — blue shirts

and denim pants — with four of the five sporting red suspenders,

are Stephen C. Bearse (keyboard and musical director), Robert Gargiullo

(bass guitar), John Kemp (cello), Jim Gleseke (guitar) and Jonathan

Cooper (percussion). (Harry Chapin’s father drummed for the big swing

bands.) One of the performers, Tom Orr, even picks up a guitar to

accompany himself.

Around and above the band is a walkway; at the sides it becomes descending

platforms where the four performers appear, singing the lyrics with

clear, strong voices, acting as the lyrics prompt, and often dancing

with verve and energy across downstage, in front of the band. Robert

Thick, co-producer and director, designed the production so that the

band music and singing, dancing, and acting interweave.

OBT has put together a group of engaging performers who can sing strongly

and purely, dance, and act the small roles the musical stories give

them. There’s no plot. The characters are interchangeable, and there’s

no carry-over from song to song. Yet some of the songs, nostalgic

or regretful, can touch and leave you, as they did this reviewer,

smiling or quietly weeping.

For humor topped with catastrophe there’s "Bananas," a song

about 30,000 bananas heading to Scranton, Pennsylvania, when the truck

rounds a curve, crashes, and the result? Mashed bananas. For gallows

humor there’s a snappy number danced to and sung by the entire company

of four, "The Dance Band on the Titanic."

Some songs carry heartbreak. The D.J at radio station W.O.L.D. laments

that he has a voice that’s heard but never seen. Another song speaks

of failed dreams. "She was gonna be an actress; I was gonna learn

to fly." "Get On With it" tells you "time goes too

fast." In a nod to the 1960s, one song ends with its narrator

being coked out.

"Mail Order Annie, " sung and acted by Harris and Jen, carries

its message of desperation, loneliness, and longing. "Tangled

Up Puppet," about raising children, has lyrics every parent will

respond to. His famous "Cat’s in the Cradle" is also about

raising a child and the too-quick passage of life where father and

son never have time for each other. This, like some other Harry Chapin

songs, has its undertow of sadness and open loneliness. Chapin’s philosophy

is summed up in his line "sing from the inside, you hope that

something shows."

At the show’s conclusion the performers have the audience

singing and clapping rhythmically to "Our love is like a circle.

Let’s go around one more time." The audience applauded long and

loudly, even cheered. (Eating sinfully rich desserts and fresh fruit,

sipping coffee and tea, the audience looked to be made up of aging

Baby Boomers, including many self-declared Harry Chapin fans.)

"Lies and Legends," this series of separate musical vignettes,

opened in Chicago under the musical direction and orchestrations of

Stephen and Tom Chapin, Harry’s younger brothers. In 1995 it moved

on to New York’s Village Gate. But Harry Chapin, music and lyrics

writer, never saw the show. It was put together by Tom and Steve after

Harry’s death in a car accident in 1981. He was in his late 30s.

Harry Chapin who had, and obviously still has, a following, was no

ordinary songwriter. He wanted to make a difference. He did concerts

for world hunger. It was a tradition to bring cans to donate at his

concerts. He raised over $3 million dollars for food and hunger issues,

cancer research, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic

fibrosis. Shocked by the mass starvation caused by drought in sub-Saraha

Africa, he founded World Hunger Year and supported it by his concert

earnings. He even roamed the halls of Congress with his guitar, got

his project signed into law by President Carter in 1978, and was appointed

a member of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

What does Harry Chapin have in common with George Washington, Thomas

Edison, Jonas Salk, Robert Kennedy, and Marian Anderson.? He was awarded

the Congressional Gold Medal.

— Joan Crespi

Lies & Legends, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. $24. Runs to January 18.


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