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Blueprint Specials

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 11, 2017


Blueprint Specials Cast
Photo by Ryan Jensen

Musical theatre today is frequently seen as having too great a reliance on the past, whether through revivals or backward-looking construction and composition, with entries like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen considered the exception rather than the rule. But if Blueprint Specials, which is being presented by Waterwell and plays its final performance tonight as part of the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival, cannot even pretend to refute that claim, it also stands as a stiff-spined reminder of why it exists in the first place: the upper-tier creations of Broadway's so-called "Golden Age" were, for want of an apter phrase, damn good. And to make matters better, while it's an unapologetic part of that era, it might also stand as the very best of those kinds of musicals you've never before been able to see.

Its component pieces were commissioned by the War Department in the final year or so of World War II, as a sort of Hasty Pudding-esque tribute to America's greatest fight for freedom in the last century. Written for soldiers and by soldiers, packaged (with set and costume schematics as well as script, score, and orchestrations) to be performed by our fighting forces wherever they might be and with whatever they might have at hand, these were informal outings that paid tribute to everyday military life, with all the weight, responsibility, discipline, and pure fun that could entail. This current evening has been cobbled together from the four remaining shows by Tom Ridgely (who also directed) and Sonny Paladino (who provides musical direction and, with Isaac Alter, reconstructed the music), to provide a vivid portal into the past.


Laura Osnes and Will Swenson
Photo by Ryan Jensen

And what a portal it is! Forget, if you can (you can't), that Blueprint Specials is being performed on the hangar deck of the USS Intrepid, which was commissioned for the War in 1943, and thus could scarcely be more authentic. (You can only get to the playing space by passing through the museum of eye-popping artifacts from the Intrepid's impressive record of service.) It's the content, which is so richly committed to itself and its cause, that propels you to another time and place, but doesn't resound with the ring of pastiche as much as it feels freshly minted, innovative, and necessary. It's yet further proof, if any were required, that it's ironclad specificity and devotion to ideals that result in universality, not committee- or focus-group-driven attempts to avoid offense or, you know, excitement.

It helps that the artists behind the original works were uniquely gifted for their (or any) period, with esteemed comedy writer Arnold M. Auerbach providing much of the book, future modern dance impresario José Limón supplying the choreography, and the score coming courtesy of geniuses little known (Ruby Jane Douglass) and just-plain revered (a pre-Where's Charley? Frank Loesser!). How could these voices not speak to us from across the decades, and allow us to experience, first-hand, what it was like to be on the front lines of not just history but popular entertainment?

The wispy, of-its-time plot is crazy but delightful. Tired of arguing with her husband Jupiter, the Greek goddess Pallas Athene descends to Earth to join the Women's Army Corps (WAC), and discovers that enlisted life isn't as glamorous as it may appear from the outside. (Bellowing sergeants, screwed-up clothing orders, and an uncertain future are among the many roadblocks.) Meanwhile, the paunchy, schlubby, and far-too-normal Sad Sack finds himself at odds with the taller, better-looking, and infinitely more prepared men in his unit, as he tries to make the best of a situation he's not well suited for physically or mentally. As to whether Pallas, rechristened "down here" as Private Mary Brown, and Sad Sack end up dallying together, well... figure it out yourself.

This story is really incidental, "developed" (such a word barely applies) loosely through a series of vaudeville-inspired nuggets that are basically a flimsy framework for the skits and songs. Two hundred years of American bureaucracy created the show! Five minutes of double entendres surrounding the serviceman's magazine, Yank! A scene where all the dialogue is military slang abbreviations! (A glossary in the back helps explain this, and many other gags, to civilians.) An around-the-world USO-style burlesque with a bewilderingly high costume budget! These aren't real characters, the situations in isolation have no inherent tension of their own, and it all violates the dramatic precepts Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were feverishly hammering into place with Oklahoma! and Carousel back in New York (even though there is a dream ballet here, too). And it is absolutely, gloriously priceless and irreplaceable.


Quinn Mattfeld with members of the cast
Photo by Ryan Jensen

The songs, especially as accompanied by Paladino's superb 13-piece band (replete with five instrumentalists on brass alone), are electrifying. There's the martial men-meet-women counterpoint of "Gee, But It's Great to Be in the Army" (Jerry Livingston and Hy Zaret, who also wrote a terrifically self-deprecating Sad Sack song) and "Something New Has Been Added" (Douglass); Loesser's pointed you-are-there material in "PX Parade," "Classification Blues" ("If they ever classified me right," four professionally miserable soldiers sing, "that would be news"), and "Poor Lonely MP"; as well as surprisingly progressive insights from Douglass as she charts the way the women are changing the army from the inside out. There are a couple of Loesser's typically aching ballads, too, in "When He Comes Home" and "Lost in a Cloud of Blue," but for the most part it's all, you should forgive the pun, properly anchored.

Mock-makeshift sets and costumes by Andrea Lauer and no-nonsense lighting by Simon Cleveland further seal the deal, as does the lively choreography by Patrick McCollum and, in a few instances, Colin Connor and members of the Limón Dance Company recreating (or at the very least reimagining) their founder's creations. And there's no fault to be found with the cast, which counts two familiar Main Stem names of today in Will Swenson and Laura Osnes, tartly paired as Jupiter and Pallas; marvelous support from lesser-known-but-shouldn't-be talents like Emily McAleesjergins as a staunch WAC MP and particularly Quinn Mattfeld as a ridiculously charming Sad Sack; and a healthy helping of men and women who are in the military today, but could have sparkling stage careers of their own if they chose because they're just so good.

Everything here is, though—because what else could it be? I'm not sure I realized how good it was until the finale, when I found myself in tears watching the bumbling troops finally come into their own and even the on-hand omnipotents realize they can contribute to something greater to themselves. The song that blows it all out is a Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane winner called "America (Is the Place for Me)," which is as emblematic of WWII as any you'll find, but in its sheer, sunny optimism stakes claim to a kind of truth bigger than any false-thinking imitation could be.

"Village greens and childhood scenes / Are things that I'll remember yet," runs the lyric. "Land of dreams and moonlit streams / How close to heaven can you get?" With Blueprint Specials, which will hopefully become a permanent fixture on the Intrepid, the answer is: pretty darn close. For writing that was considered all but disposable and inconsequential in its time, it reminds us more than any show in recent memory just how stirring, important, and even transformative musical theatre can be at its most honest and most uplifting best.


Blueprint Specials
Through January 11
Pier 86, West 46th Street & 12th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org


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