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Deployed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Deployed
Janice Landry surrounded by (left to right) Kyle Robert Carter, Erik A. Gullberg, Clayton Jones, Collin Lyle Howard, and Adam Hyndman
Photo by Christine DiPasquale

No one would ever confuse Jessy Brouillard’s musical Deployed, which is playing through Tuesday as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, with Les Misérables. After all, it’s set in America and Iraq in more or less the present day, and, despite its almost exclusively military cast of characters, is less about fighting for freedom than it is coming to terms with what real freedom means. But at the end of the first act of this show, the tension and the drama swell to enough of a degree to give the epic Boublil-Schönberg pop opera a real run for its money — and your heart (and possibly tear ducts) an even better workout.

The setup for the first-act finale is simple enough. Corporal Emily Baker (Janice Landry), who went to Iraq to train men but instead has ended up training women, has just received a stunning diagnosis that puts her career and her relationship with her boyfriend, Lt. Anthony Wilkes (Bryant Martin), in jeopardy. It doesn’t help that Anthony has returned to Iraq, which he left a year ago after accidentally killing a young woman with a hand grenade, more or less to check up on her, something that’s given him myriad complex feelings of his own. And Laila (Nina V. Negron), one of Emily’s trainees, is fighting her own misgivings about the American occupation and its impact on her family, something that this particular set of officers makes impossible to ignore.

What begins as a frivolous USO-style show, with two big stars from the United States on hand to play their talents for the troops, slowly melts from a dance-party tune into an intricate quartet, backed by the ensemble, that thrusts everyone’s troubles to the fore. Then, as the pop starts up again underneath, Emily, Anthony, and Laila continue to sort through their own wishes for redemption and validation underneath, until there’s nothing to be heard but an undulating wave of sound that seamlessly fuses raucous, carefree entertainment with the world-weariness none of these people is allowed to abandon: a powerful juxtaposition that sends you into intermission on the kind of contact high you rarely find at NYMF.

Okay, maybe it’s not “One Day More,” but it’s arresting, inventive, and frankly beautiful composition that keenly expresses the deeply human concerns that are at the center of this story. And in terms of embracing raw emotion, it’s also hardly an isolated moment in Deployed. Brouillard is adept at crafting songs that pierce to core of what these people are experiencing, and distills them to their irresistible elemental components. Emily, Anthony, and Laila share a series of affecting moments that limn romance, loss, rage, and regret against aching melodies that signal that they know as well as we do that such experiences are fleeting and, when approached incorrectly, dangerous. Brouillard and Deployed are at their considerable best when wrapped most tightly within these ideas.

Unfortunately, there’s more to the musical than just that, and that’s where Brouillard and his show stumble. A rickety subplot with a womanizing French documentarian, Patrice (John D. Haggerty), adds cringeworthy excess to too many scenes that ought to be simple and unadorned. And Emily’s doctor friend, Sergeant Brooke Redmond (Natalie Toro), seems on hand only to deliver comic relief, and then only by way of her man-hungry attitude that registers as at best unprofessional (and at worst not remotely funny) in the contexts in which it appears. And the other soldiers, most notably Jones (Erik A. Gullberg) and Cooper (Kyle Robert Carter), are drawn in shallow, sweeping strokes that do little to reinforce the reality in which these people are all mired.

Brouillard would also do well with better defining Emily and Anthony; it’s not always clear what brought (or keeps) them together, especially since most of what we see them do in their earliest scenes together is fight. Though he recovers well from it, he may want to think filling in some gaps surrounding one aspect of Laila’s character that, as sketched here, is more convenient and predictable than is absolutely ideal. And, nice as Brouillard’s tunes are, he lacks the nimble comic voice he wants to bring to the taunting “Weather Girl,” Patrice’s playful “Tu viens Danser?”, or Brooke’s saucy “Come to Mama,” and many of his lyrics are littered with false rhymes that sap much of the intended poetry from the more serious situations he presents.

If Deployed still needs more work, it benefits from a good director (Mindy Cooper) who keeps things moving and surprising throughout, a fine but spare physical production (sets are by David Goldstein, costumes are by Janell Berté, and lights are by Sam Gordon) that captures both the parched earth tones of the Middle East and the more vivid colors of the U.S., and a solid cast. Landry brings a compellingly hard edge to Emily, but nicely softens when it’s required, and makes believable the young woman’s journey from self-directed to self-sacrificing. Martin is stalwart and suave as Anthony, and Negron attractively casts Laila as a girl who’s always looking through ghosts but somehow able to speak (or sing) beyond them. The other performers, though all professional, are more hampered by the limits of their characters.

But at the end of both Act I and Act II, when Emily must try to rebuild her life after experiencing crippling adversity, there don’t seem to be any limits to what Brouillard can accomplish with his writing. Gorgeous, poignant, and above all theatrical, the numbers he’s devised for these scenes rank among the best NYMF has heard in years, and instantly brand him as a composer-dramatist to watch. If both he and Deployed have quite a distance to travel before all their rough edges are sorted out, there’s enough that’s good here to suggest that his doing so would be well worth the wait.


The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
Deployed
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nymf.org