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The Rosenbach Company: A Tragicomedy
Saturday, July 8, 2006
Hunter Center

Musical Theater performance
Words and Design: Ben Katchor
Music: Mark Mulcahy

review by Seth Rogovoy, critic-at-large, Berkshire Living magazine

(North Adams, Mass., July 9, 2006) -- There was a moment in the second act of The Rosenbach Company, probably about halfway through, when the clouds parted, the sky opened up, and it suddenly became crystal clear that this story ostensibly about two businessman brothers in the early twentieth century in Philadelphia was about a lot more than the brothers: it was really a paean to the love of books -- their look, smell, feel, even their taste. And more: the sense of love that books can inspire, the sense of the need for possession of a cherished object. But not just any object -- books alone can truly inspire the sort of obsession that this show talked about, as bibliomania, because they combine an irrational obsession with something totally rational -- a book, the printed words of an author, bound on pages between cloth covers.

The show was also about a lot more than just books: most notably, it was about sibling love and sibling rivalry, and coming as it did in this summer when just down the road, The Clark is staging a major exhibition about two rivalrous collector brothers, it's too bad more wasn't made of this theme in the pre-show publicity. Because the musical really speaks very much to the story of STerling and STephen Clark, nearly as much as it described the real-life relationship between PHilip and Abe Rosenbach, book collectors and decorative art collectors, who tolerated each other for decades in the same business as they secretly loathed and loved one another.

It's too bad also that the show wasn't also marketed as what it basically was: a very accessible, enjoyable rock opera, not so far from works by The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia) in its generous embrace of multiple styles of music (courtesy of composer/singer/genius Mark Mulcahy, who also played/sang the role of Abe Rosenthal) and in its basic staging: a live concert accompanied by projected images, in this case the marvelous cartoon-like illustrations of Ben Katchor.

Given how basically static the staging of the show was, it's all to the credit of the visionaries behidn the work, Katchor and Mulcahy, as well as production stage manager Michael Barker, that the show never lagged and was in fact dynamic, even gripping and compelling at times. Entirely sung through with the aid of the projections, the story basically recounted the lives, loves, and business successes and failures of these two brothers, through songs that sometimes adopted their points of view, sometimes others who knew them, and sometimes in third -person narration.

Mulcahy drew from a broad musical palette, including pre-rock pop, music hall, vaudeville, Beatlesque pop, the Kinks, the Who, alt-rock, country-rock, indie-rock, faux jazz, cabaret-rock, and more, somehow tying it all together. This is not unlike Pete Townshend's work, which in his operas was much broader than in his conventioanl rock albums, but Mulcahy is his own visionary, and his music was always at the service of Katchor's book, which almost always could be heard over the live rock band except for a few moments when the band became loud and one of the less-strong singers was singing.

While the songs propelled the plot (along with the images), they also paused to ask questions, including "What a book tasted like in the nineteenth century in Philadelphia," which in typical Katchorian fashion proceeded to answer, giving exactly the ingredients of the paper and the ink used then and speculating that it wasn't half-bad, even tasting of licorice (hence, appealing to children, circling back later on in one of the evening's hilarious showstoppers: "Fewer Children, More Books.")

Other Katchorian themes that were explored in depth were a fascination with typography and its effect on a young, impressionable mind, and "an abnormal interest that went beyond the mere love of reading."

Anyone who loves books undoubtedly could relate to Abe Rosenbach's obsession, even if it was a little bit over the top. And anyone who is in business with a partner could appreciate the struggles that automatically ensue when two people of different temperament and vision are working toward a similar goal. It's an old, old story -- Biblical, in fact, and there were Biblical overtones to some of the relationships in the Rosenbach clan, although these were also played subtly and in keeping with the matter at hand, which was to tell the story of these two brothers as it played out in Philadelphia and up and down the East Coast in the early 20th century.

In addition to Mulcahy, Mollie Weaver and Ryan Mercy especially turned in fine performances as the women and Phillip Rosenbach respectively.

Katchor's drawings, a few of which were juiced to move a bit, were as much of the star of the show as anything else -- fully and totally evoking this lost world when immigrants or children of immigrants could scrape by and pull themselves up by their bootstraps through ingenuity combined with pluck combined with an appreciation for good real estate and design sense. The songs worked wonderfully with his images to convey character, and with just a few lines or a few objects, one could tell the difference between a lonely, scorned woman in a cheap rental flat and the luxuriousness of a well-appointed parlor and salon -- you could practically smell the fabric.

By my count this was at least Katchor's fourth performance at MASS MoCA -- including one slide show, the Carbon Copy Building opera with Bang on a Can; the Slugbearers of Kayrol Island which was also a Mulcahy collaboration, and now this one, which by my account was the best, in that it was the most effective at telling a quintessentially Katchorian story with Katchorian themes using means that supported those themes rather than superimposing other methodology on his work (excepting, of course, his own slide show, which is TOTALLY QUINTESSENTIALLY Katchor, if you have never seen one).

Call it what you will -- performance art, musical theater, avant-pop musical, or rock opera -- The Rosenbach Company, which unfortunately will not be repeated, was undoubtedly one of the surprise hits of the summer season, transporting the small audience on hand to see it to another world full of laughter and genuine sentiment.

---review by Seth Rogovoy, critic-at-large, Berkshire Living magazine

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