One Red Flower: Letters from 'Nam
While the Village Theatre showcases mostly tried and true old musicals, such as this season's Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, and Damn Yankees, the company's Originals series is the only continuing program in the Puget Sound area with a commitment to fostering new works of American musical theatre in collaboration with the authors. This fall's major entry in the series is One Red Flower: Letters from 'Nam, an ambitious, heartfelt and often satisfying look at wartime Vietnam through the eyes of the men who were there.
Adapted by Emmy award winning television and film director Paris Barclay (The West Wing, E.R., NYPD Blue) from the non-fiction book "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," the show is of the musical theatre genre most successfully achieved in A Chorus Line and with lesser success in Working. Barclay, clearly a musical theatre composer/lyricist to be reckoned with, tells the story with clarity, but doesn't always avoid trivializing the subject, and the show doesn't move one as often as it should. Yet, for nearly all of its two and a half hour running time, the show compels, informs and entertains with a glimpse into the often hellish, sometimes light-hearted experience of our American fighting men (though a few letters home from a female perspective would have been welcome).
The female perspective is offered by letters back to 'Nam from Eleanor, mother of a soldier named Billy who we learn (in a post-war prologue) didn't come home from the war. The prologue, in giving away Billy's death, takes away from what could have been a wrenching emotional climax to the show. And the role of Eleanor as written - and as performed by the far too young and attractive Marta DuBois - lacks substance and depth. The show feels like it needs a couple of other women writing letters back to their boys. We know they are being written to, and having just one person answering them back feels unbalanced.
Barclay shows that he knows how to bring the words from the page to the stage in a great many of the show's songs. On one hearing, stand-outs include a strong mood-setting opening "I Was There," a well-constructed character piece "Paper Soldier" for soldier Rick who begins as a paper pusher and ends up a casualty of war, a very funny ensemble number called "All I Need Is You" (the "you" being marijuana), the haunting ballad "Land of Make Believe," the ribald "Saigon Tea," which recalls some of the better numbers in Miss Saigon, and the uplifting and moving act one closer "4:16 AM," which captures the range of emotions felt by the men on the day American astronauts first walked on the moon. The show's nominal title song "One Red Flower" (the show until recently was more aptly titled simply Letters from 'Nam) seems rather slight next to many of the others in the score, though one can see why it's there. Perhaps a different melody and some reworking of the lyric would make it seem less of a throwaway.
Ron O.J. Parson's direction is clean and brisk, and he knows how to stage a musical number dynamically, even given the confines of Village's tiny First Stage space. He has assembled a winning and diverse company to tell the soldiers stories. Though his character is one of the first war casualties in the story, Robbie Swift's Rick is a clear audience favorite, a sort of Vietnam version of MASH's Radar O'Reilley. Kevin Noonecheter displays a fine voice and a droll, ironic delivery as the pacifistically oriented medic Marion. T.E. Russell has a commanding stage presence and powerful vocal style as Kenny, Josh Keaton makes haunting a transition from bravado to shattered as P.O.W. soldier Alan who is caged by the North Vietnamese for much of the war, and Levi Kreiss mines humor and pathos from his redneck G.I. George and strongly sells the lead on the song "My Own Dream." In the central role of Billy, David Burnham shows off a fine voice and is generally likable, especially in his near closing number, "The Kid Is Coming Home," but he and DuBois lack the essential chemistry that would make their mother/son exchanges resonate. This is the weakest element of the current production, but certainly one that can be fixed with rewrites and more appropriate casting.
One Red Flower: Letters From 'Nam is an important new musical that would seem to have a promising life ahead of it, as long as a writer/composer Barclay is willing to dig a little deeper, explore a few darker moments, and tug at the heartstrings a bit more forcefully.
On Red Flower: Letters from 'Nam runs through November 17 at Village Theatre's First Stage, 120 Front Street, Issaquah, Wa. For further information visit Village Theatre on-line at www.villagetheatre.org.