Arts » Feature

Are the H-Men Da Bomb?

From the stars to the stage

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We've all heard about Edwin Hubble via NASA's famed Hubble Space Telescope, a gleaming broadcasting cylinder afloat in orbit that yields a constant harvest of astonishing images spanning the known universe. Though we still hear of Hubble making remarkable discoveries, the man himself died in 1953 -- chiefly known then as the propounder of Hubble's Law, which codified the notion that the universe is forever expanding at a constant rate.

Hubble stands toward the end of a line of distinguished astronomers hailing from the H-sector of the alphabet. Beginning with Edmund Halley (1656-1742), of comet fame, the line includes William and Carolyn Herschel, discoverers of Neptune, and stretches into the new millennium with Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).

Charlotte's most mercurial playwright, Stan Peal, exhumes a Hubble helper from the margins of astro-history in his new musical, The Expanding Sky. From the outset, Peal is paying homage to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, where he first found the intriguing tale of Milton Humason. Without the benefit of a high school education, Humason climbed up the hierarchy at the seminal Mt. Wilson Observatory to become Hubble's collaborator in the observations and calculations that became the basis of modern cosmology.

Even before that ascent -- from the position of janitor! -- Humason was a muleteer whose packtrains brought the materials up the mountainside that housed the history-making telescope and built the scientists' living quarters. Likely, Humason would have continued his nomadic lifestyle if he hadn't fallen for Helen Dowd, daughter of the chief electrical engineer at the Mt. Wilson project.

Taking his epigraph from Sagan -- "We are star-stuff pondering the stars" -- Peal manages to make that line the cornerstone of his opening song. He also grasps the delicious triviality that he is elevating yet another of astronomy's H-men to musical comedy glory. To underscore the point, Peal tosses George Ellery Hale our way, inventor of the spectroheliograph and the founding father at Mt. Wilson.

Unfortunately, too many of Peal's best points reach us after intermission. That will be light years too late for anyone who grows impatient with the longueurs of Act 1.

Ironically, Peal's problems in Act 1 stem largely from his reluctance to take his cue from Sagan. Exposition is punched up with a series of vaudeville sketches that explain the evolution of cosmology from the ancient days of Ptolemy through Copernicus and Galileo. Humason's budding romance with Helen is interrupted by a jumpy, ragtime-y, choo-choo choreographed explanation of the Doppler Effect, the audible sibling of the more pertinent redshift, a key ingredient in understanding Hubble's constant.

Comic relief eventually starts to strangle the scientific pith of Humason's biography. While Milton and Helen move along their predictable track from chance meeting to parenthood, punctuated by our high-fructose physics lessons, we get no inklings of the science or the cosmic wonders that have inspired Humason's passions during his night-long vigils at the Observatory.

The spirituality that marks "Pondering the Stars" at the beginning of The Expanding Sky remains dormant until intermission. Peal loses confidence in what Sagan proved triumphantly in Cosmos, the most-watched series in PBS history -- that science can be gripping, compelling and uplifting. Even more inexplicably, Peal seems to forget that he's a playwright, resorting to rhyme and Lloyd Webber-ish recitative to push his exposition forward.

So I found myself dreading the second reprise of "Love Shows You the Stars," promised in the playbill at the top of the list of segments for Act 2. Happily, we get the "Cepheid City" vaudeville first, with astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt valiantly attempting to explain pulsating stars to Carmen Allen, undoubtedly Gracie's sister.

Better yet, Peal returns to his senses. While the shtick continues clicking, Peal finally develops some interesting dramatic tensions -- in Humason's marriage and on his career path. These arrive with Edwin Hubble. On the page, Peal the playwright portrays Hubble as something of a cad, quite content to take sole credit for discoveries he made jointly with Humason. On stage, Peal the actor layers on a clubby British arrogance, with a genial accent that is totally at odds with the Hub's slyly acknowledged Minnesota roots. Nor does Peal neglect to affect the pipe Hubble holds or smokes in most of his PR photos.

Vaudeville, strictly confined to stage left for most of the evening, crosses successfully to center stage in "Hubble and Humason," the infectious song that cements the partnership between the two astronomers. Hardly more than a vamp, its Joplinesque rhythms are spiced with lyrics and outrageous rhymes that W.S. Gilbert wouldn't be ashamed of.

So while the vaudeville is making its first incursion into the storyline, our hero is making his first successful excursion into comedy. Lou Dalessandro has had many charming moments up to this point as Humason, but if Milt the muleteer had some rough edges that needed smoothing over before he found Helen, Peal has yet to include them. It's only when Hubble enters, takes our hero on as a partner, and then takes unfair advantage that Humason is able to develop some interesting contours -- and backbone. Given this opportunity, Dalessandro proves worthy of sharing the spotlight with Peal.

The supporting cast, each playing a minimum of four roles, is consistently brilliant in their comic turns. I'm not altogether sure, but I think Jim Esposito winds up as Georges Lemaitre, champion of the Big Bang Theory, with a redshift toward Groucho Marx. Meanwhile, Meghan Lowther incarnates Albert Einstein with Harpo-esque muteness after her distinguished stint as Carmen Allen. Christy K. Basa does mostly straight roles, including a stately and forbearing Leavitt, before her final descent into Sir "Chico" Newton.

Amid all the fun, Cindy Barringer gets shortchanged in the role of Helen Dowd, the allegedly brainy engineer's daughter who turns out to be little more than your clichéd musical comedy ingénue. Barringer is excellent, but she should be so much better.

With Peal's actress wife Laura Depta as the co-producer of this Epic Arts Repertory Theatre presentation, and 2002 CL Theaterperson of the Year Julie Janorschke directing, I would have expected fierce lobbying on behalf of the H-woman. Surely, Helen could be a participant in the education and inspiration that must have occurred during Milty's remarkable transformation from cowpoke to cosmologist.

Can somebody say learning curve?

Music direction by Marty Gregory is impeccable, just slightly upstaged by the overachieving choreography of Annette Saunders. Transitions are clunky, but you'll enjoy Chris Timmons' set design, augmented by Osiris Rain's spacey, New Age scene paintings.

After a concert stage reading in New York in May 2005, the expanded Epic Arts version of Peal's musical proves to be deserving of its $2,000 Alfred P. Sloan grant. Supporting the show now is an important way that Charlotte audiences can help ensure the ultimate appearance of an even better Expanding Sky 3.0.

With adequate backing, Peal might even afford more H-men. Did you know that Humason did his pioneering observations on the Hooker and Hale telescopes? Eat your heart out, Hubble!

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