The Newton Country Players launched the holiday season by making the Greater Boston community the lovely gift of "Captains Courageous". Previously unheard in New England -- previously unheard everywhere except for Ford's Theatre, The Goodspeed, and Manhattan Theatre Club, where, as David Spencer says in his 1999 Aisle Say review, it may have been "the single most bum-rapped musical in history" -- "Captains Courageous" turned out to be exactly what my Young Companion, Alex, and I wanted to hear. In spite of the show's being dismissed two years ago by most of the NYC critics, Alex and I and the rest of the Newton audience thought "Captains" the perfect musical for a pre-teen boy and his friends and the adults who love them to share. Beautifully and truthfully performed by a band of singing actors who looked as if they might have been gathered up from the fishing docks in Gloucester, and sounded like men for whom singing was business as usual, part of the set of manly skills in which they take justifiable pride, "Captains Courageous" confirmed Spencer's judgment that it is ... "not just a good show. It's a great show, separated from being a classic only by time."
The Newton Country Players are a community theatre that produces in an all purpose hall at the Windsor Club in the Waban section of the Boston suburb of Newton. The seating is on folding chairs, and the stage is only a few steps up from the flat on the polished floor seating. Sight lines are not good. There's no fly space, not much in the way of wings or backstage area. The theatre simply can't do spectacle, or even scene changes beyond the most minimal. Tom Donaghey's unit set provided an all purpose playing space where the actors could be seen; a swathe of sky, a hint at masts and sails, a practical dory, a cluttered scrap of a ship's galley, a mere suggestion of docks and an ocean liner -- and the cast acted as if this whole wide world and all its myriad details were real and in place, inviting the audience to fill it all in with their imaginations. There was nary a trace of cuteness or condescension, the bane of "family" musicals.
It goes without saying that the Windsor Club has no orchestra pit, and the Players made do with a virtual orchestra: keyboard and synthesizer. Necessity turned out to be a virtue. A kind of thrifty stripped down New England version of "Captains Courageous" suits the tale, which is about the stripping away of society's excess and artifice and stratification, and the earning of real respect, based on skill and teamwork. I have heard Frederick Freyer's score just this once, in this reduction; but whatever magic musical director Don Boronson worked so that just he and Wendy Martin could realize it, under Boronson's direction the music evoked that a whole imaginary world -- sky and sea and storm and calm and the sounds of labor and conflict. Best of all, the orchestration was in balance with the splendid singing. The Newton Country Players borrowed some props and "scenery" -- authentic hemp rigging -- from New Rep's premiere early this year of the opera "Moby Dick", and so invited a direct comparison with that professional production, one of the best I've seen in a Boston theatre. The Country Players amateurs had nothing to fear from the comparison. They sang in character and in tune, and with an expressive range to gratify any ear. This is twice in one year that Boston has been treated to the uniquely thrilling sound of a full bodied male chorus, and to the compelling celebration of manly strength and teamwork that is encoded in the sea chantey. I am just plain grateful, on my own behalf, and especially for the sake of boys like Alex, who had never heard anything like it before. Alex came away singing the fishermen's songs, especially "Little Fish" and "I Make Up This Song", and both of us came away wanting to hear the whole score again ASAP. If we had seen it any earlier than the last of the show's six performance run, we would have come right back to see it over again the next night.
For a description of this musical, there's no improving upon David Spencer's perceptive Aisle Say review of the original off-Broadway production -- so I'll simply quote from that notice, still on file in AISLE SAY's New York archive under the "Gone But Not to Be Forgotten":
"'Captains Courageous' tells the story of a spoiled rich kid, Harvey Ellesworth Cheyne, who falls off his father's ocean liner, to be rescued by Manuel a Portuguese fisherman in a dory, who crews on a schooner out of Gloucester, Mass., on a three-month fishing expedition. Harvey quickly finds that his wealth, influence and money mean nothing to the captain or crew of the schooner, and he comes close to being branded a Jonah-- a portent of bad luck. But Manuel defends him, and gradually tames his spirit -- more accurately, releases his spirit, his true spirit -- becoming a surrogate father (in a real sense, the emotional father Harvey never had) and teaching him to do something he can be proud of: be a noble fisherman. The tenderness of the father-son tale is set against a robustly muscular canvas. "Captains Courageous" is, alongside "1776", the most convincingly testosterone-powered musical in the cannon. As my dear companion at the performance I attended -- herself an accomplished opera singer -- commented, "It's such a rush to see a musical about guys who are real guys." There's no musical theatre soft-pedaling, no compromise. This is a rough and tumble group, and the swell of harmony, and sometimes counterpoint, when the male chorus kicks into full gear comes at you with the same majesty as the hammer of God. Of course, this wouldn't be possible if the score itself weren't of exuberant sweep; but Frederick Freyer is one of the best melodists of the new generation, while the lyrics of Patrick Cook, upon close analysis, are far more intricate than their deceptive surface simplicity: whether in a rousing sea chantey or a gentle lullaby sung to seduce a fish onto a hook, the imagery, diction, locution are always precisely right -- precisely right too is the placement of musical numbers, the motivation for song, and how songs are structured to enrich complex characters while moving the story forward. Consummate craftsmanship is putting it mildly."
Brian Halperin, the young performer/director who saw the production Spencer reviewed, shared Spencer's high opinion of the show, and it became his Boston area directing debut when the Country Players undertook to mount it. For Halperin, "Captains Courageous" was a labor of love, and the Newton Country Player's production is dedicated to Halperin's year old daughter, Jaydie. Halperin looks even younger than he is, and he cast himself in a lad's part: Dan, the Captain's son. Halperin acquitted himself well in it, for a grown up -- and a mannered child actor in the role might have been intolerable. But the rare real kid who is also a real actor would have been even better. I can't imagine anyone else being a better director for the Players' show, though. Honesty and love, that's what matters, here -- and that's what Halperin's production had, in spades.
The role of Manuel, the humble fisherman hero with a musical gift and a mystic's serenity, was played by Tim Fitzgerald. I can't vouch for the accuracy of Fitzgerald's Portuguese accent: but I believed in it, and in him, absolutely. I believed that Fitzgerald's Manuel was an uneducated laboring man, and yet the most admirable of men, one whose instincts are entirely noble, and whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure. I believed that Manuel was shy and exuberant, macho and tender, awkward and gracious, a parfit gentil knight; an alien and a misfit, yet the ideal older brother or foster father. Fitzgerald's singing was of a piece with his acting: beautiful, rich, deep, exquisitely emotional, yet so simple and natural that it seemed as effortless as the song of birds or whales. It was easy to believe that this Manuel made up songs and sang them because his father did before him, and that for such men singing is love made palpable. I may have seen a few other musical theatre characterizations as vivid and nuanced as this one -- but a more convincing portrait of paternal goodness, never.
Harley Yanoff, so impressive as the Crown Prince in Turtle Lane's "King and I" two years ago, was very, very good as Harvey, the rich kid whose defensive selfishness melts under the sunshine of Manuel's attention. The first scene, where Yanoff is being a brat, had enough stage kid mannerisms that I cringed at the thought of a whole evening full of this shallowness. But when Harvey encountered the hostility of the schooner's crew and the bleakness of his situation, Yanoff shed every iota of cuteness and turned nasty. Then, when we could barely stand the kid, his Harvey began a climb towards humanity. His interactions with the fishermen were as individualized as their characterizations, and the real intimacy achieved between Harvey and Manuel was as touching as anything I've ever seen on stage.
The central pair got enormous assistance from the fierce opposition of Bill Toll's Long Jack. Toll isn't long in inches, but he is an actor of real stature, and he made the superstitious and resentful enmity of his Jack not only credible but even sympathetic. The sea is an awful presence to Jack, a terrifying god of cruel whim as well as of blessing and bounty, and Toll made the audience feel this numinous presence, too.
The Country Players' have been invited to revive "Captains Courageous" for 2 January performances in Gloucester -- on its native grounds so to speak -- to be held in Gloucester High School as a fundraiser for the Sawyer Free Library. I hope every seat is filled, and that many of people sitting in them are fathers and sons, because this musical cuts to the core of what it means to shape a soul -- one's own, a child's, your neighbor's. It celebrates love, respects labor, honors sacrifice, and expresses the terrible pain of loss when goodness is cut off by death. Seeing it now, you can't help but reflect on those other Courageous ones, the working class heroes of Sept. 11th, and their strength and teamwork and sacrifice. Probably you'll weep: most of the Newton audience did; the males letting the silent tears roll down while the females dabbed at their eyes and sniffled into their handkerchiefs. Maybe your boy will admit that he cried "a little" too, and even allow you to hug him. You'll all come away the better for it.