Also see the new review of Sunday in the Park with George
"I was there!" exclaim the six exuberant young soldiers in Letters from 'Nam. They are speaking, of course, of the Vietnam War and all its so-called glories. The interesting thing is that I'll be saying the same thing to people when they ask me about Letters from 'Nam. "I was there!"
Letters from 'Nam is a great new theatre piece; given the events of September 11, it is even more relevant now than it was before, and sometimes harder to watch. Transforming a book of letters written by Vietnam soldiers to their families and musicalizing it for the stage is quite a daunting task. However, it is a task that NSMT and the author, Paris Barclay, successfully accomplish.
The show begins with a gorgeous preset tableau of small piles of war apparatus scattered about the stage. It is reminiscent of Tim O'Brien's book, "The Things They Carried," and is very effective. From there we are transported back to Vietnam in the sixties through songs, letters, and an extremely talented cast.
Led by Grammy-nominated Maureen McGovern (or as some theatre buffs may know her, Margaret White in the workshop of Carrie) as Eleanor Bridges, the mother of one of our soldiers, this cast knows what is going on. Each actor developes an engaging, idiosyncratic character for us to get to know throughout the evening. There is an obvious camaraderie both onstage and off for the Letters from 'Nam cast and it shines through onstage.
Especially impressive is David Burnham as the son of Ms. McGovern's character. Mr. Burnham is a talented actor with a terrific voice. He takes Billy "Spanky" Bridges on a true journey throughout the evening. It is marvelous to watch his character transform from a young husband suddenly faced with war to a young man suddenly faced with life. Mr. Burnham is especially moving when he is trying to explain the war to a young cub scout back in America with whom he has become pen pals. Trying to explain war to a child is something we've all had to deal with recently, and I only wish we all could take note from Mr. Burnham on how to do it.
The other soldiers are just as engaging as portrayed by Dwayne L. Barnes, Levi Kreis, Jeff Mosier, Michael Cunio, and Rodney Hicks. These boys grow up right in front of our eyes and it is almost too painful to watch them adapt to the atrocities around them.
Maureen McGovern is a joy to watch. At first, the focus of her character is unclear, but as the evening progresses she is given great material and steals our hearts. Ms. McGovern never leaves the stage; she is ever-present in our sight as she is ever-present in the mind of her son. As act two progresses, and the war becomes more and more difficult for her son, Ms. McGovern becomes more involved in the action of the soldiers as she is further involved in the mind of her son and his wish to get home to her. Ms. McGovern is given two stand-out numbers to sing, one in each act, and my only regret is that she doesn't have more to do. Her "There Will Still Be Christmas" is a showstopper. This lady has talent and should be considered one of the great theatre divas, right up there with Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone.
The rock and jazz-infused score, with lyrics adapted from the letters in "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam," is by Paris Barclay, an Emmy winner for directing "NYPD Blue" in 1998 and 1999. There are some great songs here, from the moving "Mud & Blood & Water" to the rousing tribute to beer, "Saigon Tea." Barclay's score is even more impressive in its underscoring of dramatic moments in the show. Influenced by a light Miles Davis-esque jazz, the underscoring provides just the right atmosphere for what's happening on stage. Aided by Harold Wheeler's glorious orchestrations, Barclay's score cries out for a recording (are you listening Fynsworth Alley?).
As always, NSMT has put together a production team that does incredible things with their difficult space. The lighting by Peter Jakubowski is beautiful and sets exactly the right tones. Scenic designer Heesoo Kim and costume designer Miguel Huidor have worked together brilliantly to bring us back to this dark time in world history. Ms. Kim makes great use of sliding panels in the floor that create trenches and various entrances and exits. Her scenic design is unlike any I have ever seen at NSMT.
The sparse choreography by Peter Pucci is perfect and the direction of Ben Levit, the artistic director of the Prince Music Theatre, is extraordinary. Mr. Levit has sculpted a beautiful work here and he deserves all the praise in the world for doing so.
In light of the recent events, I was a bit uncertain at first of a new musical about war. But Letters from 'Nam is not about war. It's about human relationships, as is all great theatre, and the way war happens to effect them. It is a study of human character and nature and the way we survive our tough times. Everyone should see Letters from 'Nam; it should have a promising future.
Letters From 'Nam ran through September 23.