BWW REVIEWS: World Premiere Musical UNDER A RAINBOW FLAG Sheds Light On A Forgotten Chapter Of WWII
Running almost every Wednesday through Sunday between now and April 21, 2013, is a world premiere musical that is certainly worth seeing. It's "Under A Rainbow Flag," with book, music and lyrics by Chicagoan Leo Schwartz, and based on the recollections of the now 91-year-old Jon Phillips, living in retirement in Evanston and present on opening night. The show is running in the Profiles Theatre Main Stage space at 4139 N. Broadway, in Chicago's Buena Park neighborhood, in the Uptown community area.
Schwartz has crafted Phillips' stories of the gay men he knew during World War II, and their budding sexuality, wartime fun and terror, and the post-war America they helped shape. And now, with the help of Pride Films And Plays (PFP), Schwartz has scored a theatrical and personal triumph for himself, for Phillips, and for PFP Executive Director (and the show's director) David Zak, the veteran Chicago musical theater figure who, in 27 years at Bailiwick Repertory Theater, brought Chicago the premieres of "Jerry Springer--The Opera," "Animal Farm" by Sir Peter Hall and "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" by Dennis DeYoung. "Under The Rainbow Flag" fully deserves to be mentioned alongside those earlier successes. It's moving, fun, unexpected and, in its way, quite gripping. You should see it.
"Under A Rainbow Flag" was a finalist in PFP's 2012 Great Gay Play and Musical Contest, the first musical chosen as a finalist in that competition. (Full disclosure--I have been a script reader for the preliminary round of the competition in the past, but I did not evaluate "Under A Rainbow Flag.") The staged reading that the show received as a finalist, last May at the Center On Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theater, went so well that PFP decided to mount the show as a full production in this, its first Jeff Award-eligible season (preceded by the plays "At The Flash" and "Beautiful Thing," the latter in its 20th anniversary revival). And so, director Zak recruited musical director Robert Ollis (last fall's "Assassins" at the Viaduct Theatre and "Aida" at Bailiwick Chicago) to lead a four-piece orchestra, two-time BroadwayWorld Chicago Award-winner John Nasca to design the costumes, Garvin Jellison for the lights, Ashley Ann Woods for the two-level scenic design, Tracy Strimple for the flashy choreography and R&D Choreography for the important Violence Design. They've all done great work here.
The cast of ten is centered around the four attractive young talents who play men who bond on a troop train en route from Chicago to San Francisco in 1943. They bond over references to movies, operas and the musical, "Oklahoma!" You know, like people do. And, like all military men, they are known by their last names. Sam Button-Harrison is Phillips, freshly scrubbed and fresh off a farm in Streator, Illinois, unsure that he's actually met other men who, like him, like men. Awkward and engaging, he is the show's quiet focus. Tall and blond Nick Stockwell is Gibbs, a smooth-talking, smart young man who sees things a little more pragmatically than do his friends. Everyone falls for him, and it's easy to see why. James Nedrud plays Russell, a mechanic who is nevertheless a pretty outsized comic personality, to the delight of many. And Jordan Phelps plays Stefano, a doctor who uses his officer status when he has to, for safety and survival among a difficult society, seventy years ago. Both Nedrud and Phelps sang beautifully on opening night, and two of Phelps's songs, "Stefano's In Love" and "Once," are extraordinary.
The show's only female actor, Kyrie Anderson, has a great period look and sound as Donna, a Colonel's daughter and budding businesswoman. Her voice grew stronger throughout the evening. As her father, David Besky is not as commanding as one could have hoped for, but he has a real familial connection with her. As Owens, a brief love of Stefano's, Donterrio Johnson shows off a big voice, as does Luis Herrera as Russell's longer love, Bender. Bobby Arnold and Kevin Webb round out the cast, with Arnold a straight man in an awkward scene in the Pacific theater, and Webb bringing some unexpected civilian civility to Phillips' life post-war.
The timeliness of the show's setting (gays in the military...) is certainly not lost on anyone, but this is no diatribe or tract. This is one man's stories of what happened to him and his friends. Love is won and lost, to death, to rivals and to the tricky minefield of American society. There is violence, both expected and surprise. And yet, especially in an era of the draft and national military preparedness, it seems that a lot of homosexual behavior was tolerated during the 1940s, and not quite so tolerated in the volunteer army of a later generation. The "slice of life" that this show reveals nonetheless rings true, not because it hasn't been dramatized and fictionalized (which it has, as this is not a documentary), but because the characters seem real, and the audience cares about what happens to them. And to those they love.
The writing is strong, if not uniformly so. Most scenes set up a song and a blackout, and a few scenes seem too short, odd for a show that runs a full two and a half hours. Most of the lyrics are fine, with only a few obvious choices, but in the music Schwartz's talent shows itself most fully. Many of the songs, including the first two (the Andrews Sistersish "Why Can't The Army...?" and the campy "Would You Rather...?") are a swing, boogie-woogie, big-band pastiche, and a successful one. And many of the other songs are clearly in the Sondheim school of modern harmonies, searching psychological subtexts and longing for a better world. I was hoping for a reprise of Phillips' pop-anthemic "One Day In His Arms," and Donna's "Alone With Love" is a remarkable study of a woman in a marriage she doesn't understand. The production numbers are delectably campy and yet meaningful too, like Act Two's "Put On Your Hat And Heels" and the 11:00 number, "Queens." And many in the audience will appreciate the patriotism and nostalgia in the stirring song, "Here Goes!"
I was worried that the show started off a little too casual and campy, until I realized that the army's gay underworld must have seemed that way to young Phillips, too. The real world of secret love and ever-present violence makes itself known in due time, and with vivid theatricality. I didn't expect the show to take the characters so far in time after the war (semi-spoiler, I suppose), but it is all decidedly pre-Stonewall, and this is welcome, indeed. I need another go at the ending to fully form an opinion about how satisfactory it is, but it is certainly beautiful, and the journey to get there is one I would take again. This is no high-budget pre-Broadway tryout, to be sure, but there's a very rewarding new musical in town, and it's nowhere near the Loop. You should see it.
UNDER A RAINBOW FLAG, with book, music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz, plays March 21 through April 21 at Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, produced by Pride Films And Plays, directed by David Zak, choreographed by Tracy Strimple and musical directed by Robert Ollis. For tickets ($20-$25) call 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit www.pridefilmsandplays.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: David Zak