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THE IMPOSTERS

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

Tim Rice and Lee Menzies present


From Here to Eternity


The Musical


Based on the novel by James Jones


Music by Stuart Brayson
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Bill Oakes
Director Tamara Harvey
Set & Costume Designer Soutra Gilmour
Choreographer Javier De Fruitos
Lighting Designer Bruno Poet
Sound Designer Mick Potter
Projection Designer Jon Driscoll


Shaftsbury Theatre


Now booking until November 2014

 

This production has all the components of a great musical: compelling storyline, great performances, evocative sets, intriguing choreography and narrative songs with intelligent lyrics. But striking a balance between public pre-conceptions of this musical, doubtless, based on the iconic ‘50’s film and the much rawer novel the film was based on must have taken countless hours of thought and hard work. At the outset of the show I pondered that balance, but as I watched it, thoughts vanished as it sometimes works wonderfully well. Which, is why it became almost painfully obvious, as the show progressed that there is something potentially great lurking at its heart, that has not yet come into flower, heart being something the show exudes, despite its’ lack of sentimentality in keeping with Jones’ novel. Like novel and film before, the show is, thankfully, drawn more from a soldier’s point of view, rather than romantic assumptions of history in relation to WWII, which Jones, who was serving in the US Army in Hawaii at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, understandably, deplored.

In beautiful Hawaii, as the unexpected, deadly bombing of Pearl Harbour looms, US Army men, in training for war, find love in unlikely places. Given the time period, many of the enlisted men have joined up in search of opportunity, a commodity in short supply in the vacuous aftermath of the Great Depression. Private Robert E Lee Prewitt, from Kentucky, a ‘thirty year man’ who’s effectively, signed up for life, is no exception. Private Angelo Maggio is his companion in pleasure and, pain, i.e. weekend visits to servicemen’s sanctuary, The New Congress Club and endless, wearying tasks, assigned by their sadistic Sergeant, Prewitt, because he refuses to box, despite past accolades, Maggio, because he’s prone to talking back. Nevertheless, Prewitt determines to be the best possible soldier, despite the fact that he finds himself succumbing to the charms of a pretty young whore at the Congress Club. First Sergeant Milt Warden copes with army blues by seducing the commanding officer’s wife, Karen.

Chemistry wise, the shining stars of this show are Rebecca Thornhill as long suffering Captain Holmes’ wife, Karen and Darius Campbell as her clandestine lover, Sergeant Milt Warden. The pair flirt, frolic and fall in love as projected waves lap the shore behind them. A moment’s pause before peopling the stage with a sea of other performers may have heightened that iconic moment, but it’s understood that theatre presents its own challenges, both time and staging wise. Both performers sing their roles with passion and a true sense of emotion and their verbal sparring at the outset seems fresh and unrehearsed. That said, the main love match in this show, Siubhan Harrison as Lorene and Robert Lonsdale as Private Robert E Lee Prewitt also toy with viewers’ emotions as both performers sing their songs convincingly and it’s a refreshing change to allow Lorene to be a Hawaiian American, rather than just a white American hankering for the mainland, as played by Donna Reed of It’s a Wonderful Life fame in the ‘50’s film. Ballads, as sung by both were truly, sublime. Lonsdale has a vocal range that must be experienced live to be fully appreciated. No one in the large cast of this show epitomises the ups and downs of Army life better than Ryan Sampson as Private Angelo Maggio, whose singing about the benefits of being an enlisted man become more and more dejected as the show goes on. As this production is not enacted under the strict censorship of 1950’s Hollywood, we get a fuller picture of Jones’ novel, dark corners and all, and thus, Maggio’s penchant for ‘rolling queers’ at weekends at the lone gay bar gets an airing, and its’ fascinating seeing all the nuances of Army life being covered.

Casting is crucial in this production and Julie Armstrong as Mrs Kipfer, Madam of the Congress Club plays it big and brassy, leading her girls in a song and dance routine reminiscent of Sweet Charity’s ‘Big Spender’  that could well have been a soldier’s dream, female movement and dress wise, at least. Martin Marquez as two timing Captain Holmes is suitably commanding on a surface which suggests shadows beneath and David Stoller as mean Sergeant Ike Galovitch not only barks orders to underlings Maggio and Prewitt, but is also indicative of the melting pot that was and is, America. Last, but certainly, not least, Brian Doherty, in the pivotal role of Sergeant Judson aka Fatso chills the blood and possibly, brings back memories for formerly bullied soldiers in the audience. Each sings their roles with gusto and strong senses of who they’d like their audience to see them as being. That said, it must be added that the company work in this production is superlative and warrants a ticket in and of itself.

At the interval one theatre-goer vehemently objected to the swear words used by ‘soldiers’ in the first act, though they, understandably, have, and no doubt always will be part and parcel of military life! A heightened sense of social realism is afforded by contemporary lack of censorship, allowing Sergeant Warden, for example to cut to the chase and tell Karen Holmes within minutes of talking to her that he wants ‘to go to bed’ with her, giving a sense of how shocking Jones’ frankness may have initially been to some readers in the day. All the more reason to anchor the production firmly in its period.

While some critics grumbled about projected portions of the show, especially during full on bombing sequences of Pearl Harbour. I beg to differ, as I not only found them effective, but very compelling for their theatrical blend of real-time and cinematic, newsreel effect. One can only imagine the reality, and Jon Driscoll’s projection designs, within the context of Soutra Gilmour’s cavernously skeletal set designs and Mick Potter’s studied Sound Design in conjunction with Bruno Poet’s Lighting, vividly enable imaginations, in this and other pivotal sequences of the production. Ever challenging Javier De Frutos’ choreography for the soldiers incorporates everyday duties of Army life, such as marching, toiling, etc. in its mix, leaning towards the nostalgic and/or romantic at other appropriate times.

In the midst of our techno era, we fervently long for nostalgia. It was ever thus, you might add. Perhaps, but in my lifetime, never more so than now, when young people enthuse over days long before their time en masse, as evidenced by ever increasing numbers of ‘vintage’ events, most predominantly 1920’s – 1950’s themed, being staged at art centres and festival grounds across the UK. Yet, for fear of succumbing to pastiche, composer Stuart Brayson, making his West End debut here in conjunction with seasoned lyricist Tim Rice, has chosen to forgo obvious allusions to the 1940’s in the context of his score favour of what he sees as ‘something young people can relate to.’ I’ve only to say that if his music would have had more distinctly period inflections in it, more young people would be flocking to and relishing in his score. As this musical boasts great acting, (and oft, directing) and all of the other aforementioned stellar components, its music is the main thing which detracts from its period flavour. Performers can’t help but be in the here and now and their delivery is bound to reflect that, so there is no need to place one’s audience in the present musically. In fact, to do so jeopardises the credibility of the show’s storyline. For fans of the film, its’ already understood that war should never be romanticised, but romance itself being sentimentalised is another matter. Contemporary, indie musical inflections on guitar have no place in the context of a musical that is meant to place us in the ’40’s, and given the fact that  Sergeant Warden likes big band crooners and Prewitt, blues, the intertwining of the two, along with tastes of other characters could only make something new.

Politely enthusiastic, rather than rapturous applause at the end said it all really. That’s not to say you will come away from this show with nothing, on the contrary - you will likely, come away from it, with, as I and by the sound of it many others did, memories of wonderful moments generated by top notch performers dedicated to making their show work, rather than memories of an overall wonderful show.

 

 

 

 
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