This unexpectedly delightful gem sat untouched on my desk for far too long, but now that I’ve gotten to know it, I want to share the word: There’s a lot to like in Ghostlight Records’ cast recording of something called Calvin Berger with book, lyrics and music by Barry Wyner. 

The disc offers sparkling performances of sixteen songs that have consistently clever lyrics set to music that has a youthful vigor. It tells an easily followable story so briskly that you rarely have time to pause and question the plot’s departure from its origin. What is more, the vocals are backed by Doug Besterman’s fabulous orchestrations that find ways to fill all the available audible space with just one keyboard, a violin, a cello, a bass and one percussionist. They leave you feeling you’ve been treated to a mini-chamber-music gem in pop/show-tune style.

Perhaps the disc sat untouched for so long because the not-very-attractive cover didn’t intrigue me. But when I learned what the show was about, the show’s logo made a great deal of sense.  It set the show’s title in the typeface of a high school letter sweater superimposed over the profile of a large-nosed boy. The story is a modern adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic romantic comedy/tragedy, Cyrano De Bergerac.

Maybe I ignored the arrival because I had not seen anything about the 2010 production of the show at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey which Kathleen Marshall directed. Or that previous iterations called “developmental productions” in Massachusetts in 2006 and 2007 went unnoticed.

Or maybe it was that I just didn’t recognize the name of book/lyrics/music creator Barry Wyner. Nor did the names of any of the four members of the cast ring a bell. They are Krystal Joy Brown, David Hull, Dana Steingold and Noah Weisberg. I’ll look for them from now on, however, since each turns in a fine performance.

I’ll certainly snap up any future recordings of the work of Wyner! On the basis of the evidence in this 55 minute recording, the book for this two-act musical is a smooth piece of storytelling that slots some terrific song spots. While Rostand’s version of the Cyrano story is set among the swashbuckling soldiers of seventeenth century France, Wyner writes about coming of age in a contemporary high school.

His characters are:

– Calvin Berger – he of the big nose who believes his looks deprive him of any chance to win the love of a woman with his words and wit.

– Rosanna – a sexy beauty who believes her looks deprive her of any chance of being loved for her mind or her character.

– Bret – a less than beautiful girl in love with Calvin and she is frustrated by his failure to see that she wants to be more than his best friend.

– Matt – a Big Man on Campus who is beautiful of face and form but none too bright in the company of boys and absolutely tongue tied in the presence of girls like Rosanna.

The language used by the four characters shares a youthful, high-school-ish energy, but each has peculiarities of his or her own. Matt’s grammar is tortured at times (“If this guy can't impress her, then I don’t think no one could” – “It’s just like a brand new life has just began!” while the nerdy Calvin can rattle off such well-expressed chains of thought as this explanation of his envy of the Mr. Potato Head toy: “Mr. Potato Head / You beautiful yam / how jealous I am.  If you don’t like your nose / you pull and there it goes / you put a new one in its place / and poof! A whole new face!”

Brett is given a slang-tinged vocabulary, as when she sings of her jealousy of gorgeous Rosanna: “How can I compete with that? She doesn’t even have to try. / The girl has zero body fat. She strolls the hall and grabs the eye of not just Calvin, not just Matt / But every hornball passing by.” Rosanna, on the other hand, sounds as if she’s just stepped out of a finishing school class: “What will they say in twenty years / when they are flipping through the yearbook and a shot of me appears / What is my “thing”? My claim to fame? Or am I destined to be nothing by a name?”

The music on which these lyrics ride shares the feeling you get from many other contemporary teenage high school musicals, most notably Jason Robert Brown’s 13. At one point, Wyner uses a mod version of Elgar’s “Pomp & Circumstances” march that is ubiquitous at commencement ceremonies to carry the lyrics that deal with graduation.

What Doug Besterman does with the strings in his orchestrations is nothing short of sterling. His fills for violin and cello on the introspective “Saturday Alone” are as effective as a full orchestra underscore for the dialog break between stanzas, and just a minute later he’s using quick bow taps to set tempo in “The Fight.” Throughout the score, the band is a full partner with the vocalists – never competing for attention but always supporting by creating a feel that fits the song/scene.

I look forward to more work by Mr. Wyner. In fact, I am reserving a space on my theater shelf for his future output right next to this fine disc.

Calvin Berger – A New Musical
 Ghostlight Records #8-4461
 55 minutes over 20 tracks
 Packaged with notes, synopsis, full lyrics and 20 color photos
 List price $14.99

November 20, 2012

Calvin Berger – Original Cast Recording