by Barbara Waldinger
SOME PEOPLE HEAR THUNDER, a musical set in the midst of the Armenian genocide, purports to be something else. The director and star, Kevin McGuire, characterizes it as a “powerful musical love story,” and his co-star Joan Hess, agrees that it is a “triumphant human story” that is decidedly not about the genocide. But this production contradicts their protests, and that is not a bad thing.
The play was written by Gerson H. Smoger, a human rights lawyer, based on the 1916 recollections of Rev. Dikran Andreasian, an Armenian who managed to survive the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government starting in 1915. Tens of thousands were deported, driven hundreds of miles on forced death marches with no food or water. The Ottoman army used the occasion of World War I to decimate their civilian Armenian population, plundering their material wealth and expropriating all of their properties. To this day, Turkey dismisses the charge of genocide and denies that the deportations and atrocities were part of a deliberate plan to exterminate the Armenians. The U.S. initially refused to get involved as part of our World War I neutrality and has still not referred to the episode as genocide, out of concern for alienating Turkey, a NATO ally and partner in fighting Middle East terrorism. For many years Turkey successfully waged a well-organized campaign to discredit any attempt to recognize the genocide in films, but recently THE PROMISE, a film about these events, was able to secure financing outside of Hollywood.
The cast of SOME PEOPLE HEAR THUNDER includes descendants of Armenian survivors and ironically, one of these survivors, Badveli Nokhoudian (a character in the play) and his family ended up living in Troy, NY, working for the Albany Grand Cash Market, which was eventually converted to become Capital Repertory Theatre. It seems therefore fitting that McGuire, artistic associate at Capital Rep and Broadway performer, suggested to Smoger that following a San Francisco workshop they bring this world premiere to Albany. To clarify, Capital Rep has rented space to this Smokin’ Productions show, fitting it in between their regular season of shows.
Upon entering the theatre, we notice the clever use of a collection of shutters on the upper level, which will serve as a background for projections of headlines of the time. The set, designed by Brian Prather, also includes two full staircases (stage right and left) with colorful Turkish rugs between them on the lower level, a couple of ladders downstage, and a highly versatile platform that can be turned to fit the needs of every scene. Some of the lighting, ingeniously designed by Cory Pattak, comes from period fixtures on the upper right and left upstage walls of the theatre.
The most interesting and moving aspect of this musical is the story of the Armenians and their struggle to avoid their fate. But the script focuses instead on a reporter, Jason Karras (beautifully acted and sung by Alex Prakken), a character based on a famous New York journalist, Herbert Bayard Swope, known for his role in exposing corruption in the New York Police Department. Swope actually went to Germany in 1914, but Smoger sends the fictional Karras to the Ottoman Empire, and we witness the events of the genocide through him. The love story between Jason and the woman he leaves behind in New York City is narrated by his fiancée Carole Chapin (the lovely Rachel Rhodes-Devey), as she speaks years later about her book, “Memories from War to War,” a framing device bookending the play. Too much of the first act is concerned with this narration, with Jason’s award for his articles documenting police corruption that led to the wrongful conviction of a man for murder, and with his acceptance of an assignment to cover events in the Ottoman Empire, though it means putting off their marriage. We have all read and seen stories about reporters covering war-torn regions while their spouses worry at home. Though it is still relevant today, as are many moments in this play, it is not original and does not hold our interest.
Finally we arrive In Turkey, where we meet Zoravar der Kaloustian (McGuire) and his wife Angelique der Kaloustian (Hess), a Parisian who wants to return home. Life in their villa provides Smoger (credited with writing the book, lyrics, and music), and Jeffrey Sorkin, (Composer/Orchestrator/Vocal arranger), Josh D. Smith (Music direction/Additional orchestrations), and Freddy Ramirez (Choreographer) the opportunity to create lively music, a variety of spirited dances from all over the world and costumes to match (expertly designed by Evan Prizant). But until well into Act I we still haven’t learned anything about the Armenian genocide.
At long last, towards the end of the act, we are introduced to the horrors of war, as we meet a couple who escaped deportation and death—Dikran Andreasian (whose recollections inspired Smoger) and his wife Anoush (movingly portrayed in song and dialogue by Michael Berry and Grace Experience)–and we learn about the announcement of a curfew that the Armenians must obey or be shot. Zorovar is loath to leave his beloved Turkey with all of this happening and the finale of the act brings these characters and their stories together in heartbreaking harmony.
It is the second act that wins us over, as it exposes us to the details of the Armenian Genocide and its effect on the characters we have met (several actors play multiple characters). Though the dialogue is often cliché-ridden, some of the songs in this act are so memorable that we willingly go along for the ride. Mention must be made of the terrific albeit unseen orchestra. Songs like “The Children Went Out to Play,” and “Reach for the World”, are sung with heartrending emotion by Hess. “Have a Beer,” an amusing and clever song, has the Armenians trying to keep Jason from leaving the pub in order to tell him what is happening to their people so he can write about it and tell the world. The stunning finale, beautifully sung, combined with McGuire’s powerful staging, create an image that will remain with us after we leave the theatre. Again there are moments that take us out of the story, like the return to Central Park and the Fantasy “Sky is Falling” sequence, but when this play concentrates on the fate of the Armenians we are riveted. Why go to great lengths to describe the musical as a love story when it has a gripping tale to tell about historical events that many of us do not know?
SOME PEOPLE HEAR THUNDER runs from April 28 through May 21 at 7:30 pm Tuesday through Thursday; 8pm Friday and Saturday, with matinees at 3pm Saturday and 2pm Sunday at the Capital Repertory Theatre, where it is being shown as an independent production, separate from the Capital Repertory season. For tickets and information call Tickets By Proctors (518-445-7469) or visit capitalrep.org or somepeoplehearthunder.com.
Capital Repertory Theatre presents the World Premiere of SOME PEOPLE HEAR THUNDER by Gerson H. Smoger and Jeffrey Sorkin. Cast: Steve Hassmer (Nicholas Karras, Reverend Nokhoudian), Alex Prakken (Jason Karras), Michael Berry (Dikran Andreasian), Jessica Wockenfuss and Brianna Barnes (Ensemble), Kevin McGuire (Zoravar der Kaloustian), Matthew Winning (Ensemble), Freddy Ramirez (Ensemble, Dance Captain), Shayne David Cameris (Daniel der Kaloustian), James Occhio (Charles Chapin, the “Effendi”), Grace Experience (Anoush Andreasian), Rachel Rhodes-Devey (Carole Chapin), Joan Hess (Angelique der Kaloustian). Sound Design: Joel Abbott, Scene Design: Brian Prather, Costume Design: Evan Prizant, Lighting Design: Cory Pattak, Choreography: Freddy Ramirez, Music Director and Additional Orchestrations: Josh D. Smith, Production Stage Manager: Liz Reddick. Running time: 53 minutes each act with a 15 minute intermission; Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl Street, Albany. Tuesdays through Sundays from 4/28/17; closing 5/21/17.