In the first public performance of the four surviving musicals commissioned by the U.S. Army during World War II to boost morale among the troops, “Blueprint Specials” could not be more deftly staged, from the creation of a pop-up theater on the hangar of an actual World War II aircraft carrier (the Intrepid, now a museum) to the casting of both bona fide Broadway stars (Will Swenson, Laura Osnes) and active duty military officers and Armed Forces veterans.
Click on any photograph by Ryan Jensen to see it enlarged.
The production by the Waterwell theater company for the Under The Radar Festival, weaves together the four musicals – “About Face,” “Hi, Yank!,” “P.F.C. Mary Brown” and “OK, USA” – into what feels like a variety show, straight out of vaudeville, complete with a title card placed on an easel announcing each scene/skit/musical number, and a tone that ranges from wiseass to risqué, campy to cornball, hilarious to heartfelt. The 24 musical numbers include nine by Frank Loesser, who went on to create the musicals Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed Without Really Trying. But it’s as interesting to hear the five equally tuneful melodies by somebody named Ruby Jane Douglass, and wonder: Whatever happened to her? The choreography is styled after the original by Jose Limon, by current members of the Limon Dance Company.
In true G.I. tradition, the opening skit mocks the army, showing what it took to get the Army to put on the musicals, starting with their approval by General George Washington, who is promised it will be ready in a month (“Our songwriters have already finished the theme song: ‘You Gave Me A Thrill at Bunker Hill, When I Saw the Whites of Your Eyes, Baby’”), a promise made as well to Abraham Lincoln, and then to General John Pershing during World War I.
Osnes and Swenson are the principal characters for “PFC Mary Brown,” in which Swenson (Hair) portrays the god Jupiter, and Osnes (Cinderella) is Pallas Athena, who is so bored with life as a goddess, that she travels to Earth an joins the WACs (Women’s Army Corps, as explained in the helpful glossary in the back of the program.)
Quinn Mattfeld, who was in both “Pal Joey” and the latest “The Cherry Orchard” on Broadway, gives the stand-out Broadway performance as a comic character named Sad Sack. But Emily McAleese-Jergins is especially stirring in Loesser’s “Poor Lonely MP”; her bio lists her as on active duty and a vocalist for the West Point Band. Indeed, there was something unavoidably inspiring about the finale involving the entire 34-member cast, some dressed in street clothes to indicate they are civilians, and the others dressed in the uniforms of one of the four branches of the military represented on the stage.
The show is called Blueprint Specials because, as Waterwell explains, the shows, once created, were turned into “blueprints” for soldiers themselves to put on in the field. “The Army packaged and distributed them as a complete script, with score and orchestrations, scenic and costume drawings, and instructions for how to put on the show.”
Are these Blueprint Specials replicable now beyond the few performances of the theater festival? It would not surprise me at all if this soldiers show were given a promotion to Off-Broadway. What is even more likely to come out of this production is another smart theater company performing at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum, which is big enough to be its own floating Theater Row.
Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum
Pier 86, West 46th Street & 12th Avenue
Adapted and Directed by Tom Ridgely
Originally conceived by The Special Services Division, Army Service Forces, 1944-45
Book principally by Arnold M. Auerbach
Original choreography by José Limón
Music Director Sonny Paladino
Choreography by Patrick McCollum
Scenic & Costume Design by Andrea Lauer
Lighting Design by Simon Cleveland
Sound Design by Josh Millican
Properties Supervisor Eitan Negri
Choreography for “Report from the Caribbean” and “Ballet” in the style of José Limón by Colin Connor and members of the Limón Dance Company
Cast includes: Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Bonnie and Clyde) and Will Swenson (Hair) are Quinn Mattfeld (The Cherry Orchard, Pal Joey), Jenny Florkowski (Wicked), Emily McAleese-Jergins (vocalist for the West Point Band), James Edward Becton (U.S. Army Veteran) and Waterwell ensemble members Hanna Cheek (The Pumpkin Pie Show) and Kevin Townley (The Talent Show). Additional casting includes U.S. Military veterans as well as Active Duty and Reserve Service Members: Brad Bong, Adrienne Brammer, Hugh Cha, Jennean Farmer, Sandra W. Lee, Nelly Saviñon, and Robert Soto; as well as civilian artists Mark Banik, Kate Berman, Lyndsey Brown,Taylor Crousore, Ethan Hardy, Kurt Hellerich, Melissa Rose Hirsch, Rich Hollman, Dea Julien, Erica Page, Eddie Rodriguez, Kelsey Shaw, Mandy Striph, and Jennifer Joan Thompson.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Theater tickets: $25
Blueprint Specials is scheduled to run only through January 11.