Unknown Soldier, Book and Lyrics by Daniel Goldstein, Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Trip Cullman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"A milkshake is never just a milkshake."
Jessica Phillips s Ellen; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Deep in the bowels of the library at Cornell University a swarm of worker bees answers questions, seeks answers other people need. Among them is Andrew who seems to have been down there too long. Among the callers is Ellen who is needy, who requires answers that she cannot acquire alone. These two characters form the outer core of the best new musical to come along in the past ten years, "Unknown Soldier" temporarily encamping at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Theater.
At the inner core is Lucy Lemay a quickie war-widow in 1918 who hopes that the unknown soldier, a handsome man with no memory and only minor vocabulary, may be her husband presumed dead in the battle of the Sohm. Lucy's child is conceived during her search and that child gives birth to a child and that child grows up to be Ellen Rabinowitz; Ellen, played with great depth and strength by Jessica Phillips.
Phillips is a constant surprise running the gamut from comedy to ballad to monologue song with dark messages. In each style she commands the form. Singing "I Give Away Children" (all song titles mine as none are given in the program) she confesses to a job that nearly kills her soul even as she finds she needs the anguish to survive. Her performance throughout the show is remarkable as each scene gives us a different side of Ellen. She is joined, in this character, by Clara Young who plays Ellen at age 10. Young is a very talented child and her moments in duet with her older self are memorable indeed.
In fact everyone in this practically perfect show is practically perfect. It tells its story of people in terms of the aftermath of tragedies. Francis Grand is the unknown soldier. He has no name, no memories, no identification, almost no voice. He cannot discuss his pains or the causes of them. He has no name and has been given one that, like Oliver Twist, defines him to the medical profession. The woman who might be his wife (She married him after a whirlwind trip around New York City on the day she met him in Grand Central Station) spends more than two months trying to convince him that he knows her. By the time there is some definitive movement in this quest he has been ushered out of her life never to be found again.
The tragedy of her life tightens the heart of Lucy Lemay, played here by Lauren Worsham. As she grows older and turns into Lucy Anderson, played so very well by Estelle Parsons, she also becomes a hard woman who cannot love her own grandchild, Ellen, which sets young Ellen on a quest to find out why, and how and who, her grandmother may have once loved. It is the trial and error of discovery that is the real story here. Aided by Andrew in an Ithaca basement, Ellen, in a trainwreck of a Victorian house in Troy, NY, seeks to uncover the secrets of her Grandmother's past.
The authors have drawn a fascinating picture in this original play (which sometimes smacks a bit too much of "Random Harvest") of two women in two eras striving for the same thing. One can do it in person and one through research. That neither one ever reaches a positive conclusion is another element of this show that makes it so endearing. Worsham is vitally vulnerable as Lucy. Parsons is invariably viscous as older Lucy. Parsons is no singer, but her musical moments have the absolute notes they need. Her looks and her poise are unmistakeble though her inner being is no longer beautiful or needy. Instead she has chilled herself to utter distraction. not many actresses could pull this off and still be likeable, but Parsons manages it.
Worsham is a lyrical delight. She is heaven in waltz-time and even better in the patter songs. "Why Won't You Say It?" is a wonderful song as she makes harder and harder demands on the unknown soldier to just say her name. In addition to singing beautifully, she is a delight to look at, wears her quasi-hobble skirts well, and endears herself to us even as she grows ever more irresolute.
Back in the modern story Andrew is increasingly fascinated by Ellen. Erik Lochtefeld gives him an almost creepy crispness as he becomes more and more interested in this ardent young woman and her quest for information. It is through that specific need on her part that he begins to envision a life for them together. Her passion is transformed by Andrew into something more personal. Lochtefeld plays every transformation he undergoes with nuance and with ease. He shows us how possible it is for anyone working in a basement to find his own heart's desire on a telephone and a computer screen. Andrew, not just the hero of the story but the anti-hero as well, brings a different sort of life to the role of swain. Lochtefeld is challenged to make us like this man whose very creepiness is what makes him the fine man he is while at the same time confining him to doing research rather than living a full life. So his own adventures become memories become data.
Capping the trapdoors in the memory play Christina Sajous is delightful as a series of nurses and as desperate women wanting to claim the unknown soldier. She is joined, in both guises, by David Greenspan as an eternity of "other" men. A typical Vaudeville-style duet, "Oh, I Always Forget" is a show-stopper for this duo as is her duo with Derek Klena, "My Husband Takes Care...".
Klena gives great possibilities to the soldier. His handsome looks and his lovely voice allow him to be the fantasy man every woman wants. He plays a blank page for all it is worth and at the same time constantly redefines the stranger no one can identify. As the the title character come to life he is absolutely wonderful.
The on stage band, under the leadership of Marco Paguia, play everything in the show with style and charm and provide the perfect accompaniment to the actors in the foreground. Mark Wendland's simple set is beautiful and charming and gives us, through its unreality, a sense of place that never leaves us. Clint Ramos has provided superb costumes and Ben Stanton has designed the lighting to provide alternate realities as needed.
Patrick McCollum's choreography flows perfectly in and out of Trip Cullman's staging of the play. This director has his hands full defining characters and moving his principals in and out of their own time periods and stories. It is a remarkable job keeping the audience involved with characters that constantly redefine themselves. Cullman is a weaver and the stage is his loom. The fabric of this play develops for us under his deft handiwork.
As I said, this is the best new musical I've seen in the past decade. I came out elated and singing several tunes from the show and deeply involved in the story and eager to talk about the show and its intricate details. That hasn't happened in a long time. I also want to own the album, see the show again and take friends. That's almost a first!
Estelle Parsons and Lauren Worsham as Lucy; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Erik Lochtefeld as Andrew; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Derek Klena and Christina Sajous as Francis Grand and Nurse; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Unknown Soldier, another brief run show, ends it run at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA on August 9 after only 13 performances. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org.