Friday, December 17, 2004

One Red Flower Blossoms in Arlington

(This review of a new musical produced by Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, appeared in The Metro Herald in October. Its late appearance on this blog is due simply to my procrastination in creating "Rick Sincere News and Thoughts")

"Will they want to hear about it, or just forget the whole thing ever happened?" asks one of the soldiers in One Red Flower, a new musical about the Vietnam War, now playing at the Signature Theatre in Arlington.

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, Americans want to hear about it and yes, Americans want to forget the whole thing ever happened. Psychic dissonance, perhaps, but necessary for the health of the nation.

For 25 years or more, it seemed that Americans wanted to forget about Vietnam -- the longest war, the only war America lost, the war that divided the nation as none had since the Civil War a century earlier.

Vietnam became irrelevant, a historical footnote, not even a historical curiosity -- except for those who were there and those who knew them intimately.

One Red Flower tells these people's stories.

Viewed through the prism of the present, the Vietnam War seems more contemporary than ever.

While it is possible the creators aimed to see it staged in time for next year's commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Communist conquest of South Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, it is even more striking that One Red Flower had its world premiere amid headlines that make us feel as if the war -- at least its domestic components -- is being fought all over again.

Two presidential candidates, differing tales of honor and heroism, recriminations as inescapable as they are irrelevant: Could playwright Paris Barclay or director Eric Schaeffer have known in advance how timely their new play would be?

A history lesson as well as an entertaining musical drama, as emotionally moving as it is intellectually stimulating, One Red Flower is, at base, an anti-war play. But it treats divergent points of view with respect and affection even as it maintains its own.

Barclay, best known as a television director (notably for NBC-TV's The West Wing), is a triple threat: he wrote the book, music, and lyrics for One Red Flower, adapting the words from the anthology Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, edited by Bernard Edelman for the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission.

Musically, the score can best be described as pastiche. What Stephen Sondheim did for George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Sigmund Romberg in Follies, Barclay does for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby Stills Nash & (especially) Young in One Red Flower. He evokes the Sixties without stealing from it (save a few stray musical quotations here and there).

Even a song about the holidays, "(There Will Still Be) Christmas" is written uncannily in the mode of so many "I'll-be-missing-you-but-the-tree's-still-lit" ballads -- some memorable, some forgettable -- that made their way onto the annual holiday TV specials hosted by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Bob Hope, or Andy Williams.

The score is not musically challenging. For that, we will have to wait for Signature Theatre's next offering, The Highest Yellow, by Michael John LaChiusa. Barclay is no Sondheim, no Guettel. But he has produced a tuneful, emotionally balanced score in which there is not a wasted or inappropriate note.

Schaeffer has selected a cast that fulfills all of Barclay's promise, both musically and dramatically. Out of the six men and one woman (Florence Lacey), only Lacey is old enough to remember the Vietnam era. She shimmers in the part of a mother who is also meant to represent all the loved ones left behind on the "home front." Her burden is heavy but she carries it effortlessly.

Of her six male castmates, there is not a harsh word to say about any of them.

Kurt Boehm, a Catholic University student in one of his first professional roles, has star quality written all over him. In the early scenes, he is playful and energetic along with the other soldiers, but for most of the play his is separated and confined to a small platform as a POW. As such, he can observe the rest of the action but must remain oblivious to it. (Boehm's role might be compared to the title role in Floyd Collins, which requires the actor playing it to be physically constrained, nearly motionless, through almost the entire play.) His character first exhibits the nervous energy of a caged tiger but, over time, wearies with the boredom and deprivation of prison life. Boehm shows us this almost exclusively through body language and increasingly blank facial expressions. While the rest of the soldiers are singing in amusement about the wonders of Asian B-girls and barhopping (in "Saigon Tea"), Boehm's darting eyes convey a vacant disengagement precisely and ironically in silent counterpoint to a witty and raucous song.

The other cast members, all young, show talents far beyond their years:

Joshua Davis plays a Southern boy who feels strongly that the War is right and he is doing his proper duty to defend his nation. Despite the anti-war context of One Red Flower, Davis does this without condescension or caricature, both options available to him because of the way we so easily accept negative stereotypes.

Clifton Alphonzo Duncan displays pride in his men as the only officer among these recruits. A strong voice and confidence propel him into their, and our, hearts.

Charles Hagerty, as a helicopter pilot, has an unusual burden as an actor -- he is part of an ensemble but must remain off stage for more than half the play. Like a good soldier, however, he does his duty, making us wish we could see more of him.

Josh Lefkowitz, who plays a medic, is able to bounce his character's thoughts and emotions off of Davis's, because he is a soldier who becomes totally disenchanted with the war, questioning not only the war but his country's aims and values.

As the play's closest thing to a narrator or central character, Helen Hayes Award-winner Stephen Gregory Smith has the hardest job to do. He does it. Outstandingly. It helps that he is the putative son of Florence Lacey's mom, but that is not the only reason he deserves notice; those reasons are both multiple and unlistable.

While all of this acting and singing is going on, it might be possible to overlook the production's design elements. Possible, but unlikely. Actually, impossible: Schaeffer's design team has integrated sets, lights, props, sound, special technical effects, and visual projection into a stunningly effective whole. Set designer Eric Grims, lighting designer Chris Lee, sound designer Tony Angelini, properties mistress Elsie Jones, and particularly projection designer Michael Clark are owed any accolades they receive for One Red Flower.

If there is any flaw in this production -- and every show has at least one -- it is that sometimes the rock music from the hidden band overpowers the singers, who must wear body microphones despite Signature's intimate stage. I am not a big fan of amplification in any case -- even in the Kennedy Center Opera House, if it can be avoided -- so to see mics here was a disappointment.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Paris Barclay's political views as expressed in One Red Flower, one cannot deny that he expresses them well and beautifully. I hope that One Red Flower advances to a stage at which a cast recording is made, because Barclay's music and lyrics should be preserved and heard by far more people than those who can squeeze into Signature Theatre to see this world premiere production.

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