By Sheila Barth
Okay- straight out – Ogunquit Playhouse’s production of new musical “From Here to Eternity” is so overwhelming, realistic, and gut-wrenching, it’s the hardest-hitting musical I’ve seen in a while. Some of you remember the dramatic movie that won Frank Sinatra an Academy Award and took several other Oscars. The movie was superlative, and this new musical seems slated for success.
The musical debuted in London’s West End, then enjoyed its North American premiere in 2016, under the leadership of director-choreographer Brett Smock, producing artistic director of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival and Merry Go Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY. It’s currently making its New England premiere in Ogunquit, where the longtime, accomplished Smock continues to refine the play’s development. A theater spokesman announced the play is still a work in progress – they added a new song during its opening run – and expect to make more tweaks and changes, he said.
But there’s nothing missing in this production. Stanley A. Mayer’s multi-level set, Richard Latta’s, Christopher Ash’s and Kevin Heard’s amazing sound, lighting, and projection effects, also with Dustin Cross’ historically accurate costumes, and the entire cast are outstanding.
At the Oct. 11 matinee, the packed audience sat rapt throughout the two-act show, silent, deeply moved. And after the finale, the audience rose to its collective feet, applauding appreciatively, reverentially, exiting silently, daubing at tears in their eyes. It isn’t just the play’s subject matter – the fictitious G Company combat battalion resentfully whiling away its time while stationed on Oahu, from November to December 7, 1941, then during the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor, and slightly afterward. It’s a kaleidoscope of human emotion and situations: love; clandestine romance with the wrong persons; prostitution; and soldiers who are secretly gay, trying to avoid orders to weed them out. There are also hard-hitting physical clashes, with bullying officers and military police, some who enjoy brutally beating men to a pulp. Under fight director Christopher Elst, every beating, every blow, resounds realistically.
There’s a hint of musical “South Pacific,” and similar award-winning musicals, too, featuring forbidden lovers during wartime, under the threat of World War II suddenly attacking an island paradise. Music Director Vadim Feichtner and his marvelous musicians punctuate each scene with Sir Tim Rice’s and Stuart Brayson’s variety of songs, from blues, to rock and roll, ballad to military, and anthemic. Ensemble songs “G Company Blues,” “Thirty-Year Man,” and ”Boys of ’41” resonate throughout the theater, contrasting bluesy love songs such as “Love Me Forever Today”.
The plot focuses on two couples in forbidden relationships – 1st Sgt. Milton Warden (Kevin Aichele) who has exemplary scruples and principles, but loves battalion leader Dana Holmes’ (Bradley Dean) beautiful, sexy wife, Karen (Robyn Hurder), with whom he’s carrying on an affair. Derek Carley sensitively portrays Private Prewitt, a new transfer soldier and former outstanding boxing champion, who refuses to fight in the ring again after seriously injuring an opponent. Prewitt comes from a four-generation military family, is a 30-year man, and has served three years already.
But Holmes requested Prewitt’s transfer to his squad, because the company boxing competition is in three weeks, he wants to win the championship, and is convinced Prewitt can accomplish it. Holmes also sees it as his ticket to a promotion. As Prewitt resists, Holmes lays on menial punishment, harder. Prewitt also was determined to not get involved with anyone or anything – until he meets and falls in love with Lorene (Jenna Nicole Schoen), high-priced “escort” (prostitute).
Prewitt is befriended by wise-cracking, Italian wheeler-dealer Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Michael Tacconi), who aids and protects Prewitt, but places himself in jeopardy.
The opening scene is stirring – a young soldier trying to return to his unit, but is accosted by security MPs, thinking he’s a spy or intruder. From that moment, “From Here to Eternity’s” is riveting, a must-see, timely production that touches us all.
BOX INFO: New two-act musical, based on the acclaimed novel by James Jones, and the award-winning dramatic film, featuring lyrics by Sir Tim Rice, book by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, music by Stuart Brayson, appearing at Ogunquit Playhouse through October 29:Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2,7 p.m.; additional matinees Wednesday, Thursday, 2:30 p.m., 10 Main St., Route 1N, Ogunquit, Maine. Tickets start at $52. ogunquitplayhouse.org, 207-646-5511.