More than a nostalgic reminder of a time when America was a truly united nation, When the Lights Go On Again is a smorgasbord of World War II songs that are all the sweeter thanks to vocal harmonies that blend so well they seem like the product of a Mixmaster. There is nothing fancy in this little pocket musical about the lives and loves of a singing group during WW II, but then it behooves one to define fancy because what these four performers and their onstage band deliver is deceptively complicated underneath a simple exterior.
The show's book exists primarily as a clothesline on which to hang the production's twenty-eight songs. There is an earnest honesty to the story, primarily because the cast doesn't try to convince us that the book is more than it is; this is a soft sell that really works. Damned if you won't find yourself sniffling at some obvious clichés. More structure than story, in fact, the musical begins just before World War II with The Moonlighters finally getting some success on the radio. But just as they hit their stride, Japan strikes Pearl Harbor. For awhile they continue to sing together, giving their listeners (and us) songs that resonate with sacrifice, longing, and hope.
All of those emotions and more come into play even more directly when the youngest male member of the group feels the call to duty and enlists, turning The Moonlighters into a trio while also leaving his beautiful young lover behind. Eventually, The Moonlighters join the war in their own way by making a USO tour overseas where, wouldn't you know, the two lovers are finally reunited.
Almost all of the show is expressed through its music, much of it (now) obscure. For some older audience members this is, indeed, the soundtrack of their lives. How fascinating – not to mention bold – it is to recreate an era through songs that remain in their own time. There are, of course, some standards that everyone will know, but mostly you will not find famous old songs that have weathered the test of time. Instead, you are compelled to go back in time where these songs once lived in order to experience their innocence, warmth and truth.
The show's writer/director, Bill Daugherty, plays the titular head of The Moonlighters, and he is joined on stage by Connie Pachl, Paul Kropfl and Christina Morrell; together this excellent cast takes you on a gentle journey to the past. Daugherty, a classic Irish tenor, gives the show its tone of genial simplicity with his honest, unaffected performance. Pachl, a rich alto, provides character and humor while Kropfl and Morrell, the young lovers, give the production its tender heat. Kropfl is a smooth baritone crooner with nicely controlled charm. Morrell, in some ways, is the surprise; she is a soprano with a lovely round tone to match her delicately understated performance. The ingénue usually has the most thankless role, but she is wonderfully real in her performance. Beyond their acting, though, it's their vocal harmonies that make this show something special.
Happily, after an extended run in the Fall at The Triad that ended in mid-December, When the Lights Go On Again will have its own lights turned on again when the show returns to continue a twice-per-week performance schedule beginning January 13th.
1 Star: The Servant of Two Masters
We'll be brief, serving but one master: you. The new adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's farce by Anne and Stuart Vaughan, directed by Mr. Vaughan, is written and performed in such a stilted manner that it comes across like a silent comedy minus Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Larry Semon, or any other silent star you can name. Give the production this, however: the servant, himself, Steve Campbell, is an amiable and charming performer, but with direction that makes every line, every gesture, and every moment wildly over the top, neither the actor nor the play has anyplace to go. How much more effective this production might have been had it been approached with a more human (rather than cartoonish) touch remains to be seen. This production, however, serves no one.
4 Stars: Strings
Closing this weekend, several weeks ahead of schedule, reportedly because of major work offers to one or more members of the cast, Carole Bugge's Strings at the 78th Street Lab is something you should try to catch. This is a smart and absorbing combination of theoretical physics and a love triangle. Adding resonance to an already rich stew of ideas and emotions, the three main characters in this play are on a train heading off to see a production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen which deals, of course, with many of the same theories that are endemic to the play at hand.
Perhaps the easiest filter for whether or not this play is for you is to ask if you enjoyed Copenhagen. While Frayn's play speculates on historical events, Strings is pure fiction. Nonetheless, both plays insist upon your utmost attention to the science that underscores the themes of each work. If anything, there is a good deal more science expressed in Strings, some of it in actual lecture mode that nonetheless has a theatrical underpinning thanks to some fancy directorial footwork by Marvin Kaye.
The play takes place not only in two acts but in two parallel universes. Both acts take place on a train as a middle-aged couple and their close male friend – all highly respected scientists – leave a physics conference to see Frayn's play. The three, with the wife having a secret affair with their friend, are connected metaphorically in an eternal atomic structure of proton (the lover), electron (the wife) and neutron (the husband). Or at least so it seems in the first act ...
The play is both enhanced by the humor of having historical figures out of science (Sir Isaac Newton, Max Planck and Marie Curie) appear in interior dialogues with those who conjure them, but the artificial nature of these appearances finally undermines the human drama of these gifted yet hurting souls. In essence, it becomes too much about the science and not enough about the people. Be that as it may, it's not often that one gets the chance to see such an ambitiously written piece of work.
The cast also elevates this play well above Off-Off Broadway expectations. Movie and theater star Keir Dullea is deliciously understated as an unruffled English scientist, while Warren Kelley is sharply impressive as a more hot-tempered lower class self-made man. The woman in-between is played by Tony nominee Mia Dillon with witty relish.
Strings is a production of The Open Book Theatre Company, a troupe which traditionally gives its final bow to the script left on a stand in a spotlight at the edge of the stage. If more theater companies had that kind of reverence for the written word we would all see much better plays. Bravo to Open Book!