Review: PRIVATE JONES at Signature Theatre

Private Jones is a musical journey with a message to treasure ---: cooperation and commitment can silence the sound of hatred.

By: Feb. 16, 2024
Review: PRIVATE JONES at Signature Theatre
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The shattering of the world that took place during World War I propelled humanity into a fight for survival amidst the onslaught of enemy forces. The cacophony and horror of that war was fought in the trenches and on the open fields as portrayed in the poem “In Flanders Fields”, and in the many films including All Quiet on the Western Front and 1917, etc. Right now, however, this war is being fought theatrically (and with an emotional gut punch) on the stage of the Max at Signature Theatre.

The tragic milieu of World War 1 becomes an adversarial character in the “world premiere” of the musical (perhaps, it could better be classified as a play with music or a very theatrical piece?) Private Jones. This piece of work develops as it focuses on the hard of hearing/deaf Private Jones (played with an authentic and natural air by Johnny Link) who must undergo the many trials and tribulations of serving in the military. The fact of his being deaf exposes the prejudice of some fellow soldiers towards him, but they are all won over by his friendship and the camaraderie, community, and character- building of military life.

Throughout this very engrossing musical there is a natural and interactive building- up of the sense of the kinship and communal spirit of fellow soldiers who are standing in solidarity in the line of fire. This seriousness is complimented with the ribald humor, honesty and mutual kidding around that playwright Marshal Pailet has written so well.

Mr. Marshall Pailet has written a very solid book, composed the music, written the very arresting lyrics and delivered a totally successful delivery of directorial duties as well. That this DC native has juggled so many hats is a commendable feat, but he has also opened his inventive mind to allow an array of technical embellishments to help propel the shifting moods of the material to coalesce.

This fascinating musical is primarily about the main character, the Welsh Private Jones, trying to navigate in a world of sound yet he has an advantage as the stillness of the calm before the bullets fly does not faze him and his occupation as a sniper lends him a silent calm control. Mr. Link portrays these aspects of his character with a unique blend of stoicism and inner knowledge. The songs “Shut out all the Noise” and “Part of the Sound” exemplified these aspects. The further enigma of hearing what we want to hear was stressed to make this a truly multi-dimensional character.

This ensemble of actors plays off each other with human flair and the feeling of this traumatic period of time. Leanne Antonio, Deimoni Brewington, David Aron Damane, Dickie Drew Hearts, Amelia Hensley, Johnny Link, Jake Loewenthal, Vincent Michael, and Erin Weaver all sing and move with the physicality required for their parts.

Ms. Weaver was particularly winning and charismatic in her portrayal of the bawdy character King. The songs “Bastards” showed her vocal talents to fine advantage and Ms. Weaver possesses extraordinary comic timing.

The extroverted character of Edmund was played with fiery, virile bravado by Mr. Vincent Michael. Mr. Michael’s renditions of “Didn’t Even Flinch” and “Seen it All” shook the theatre to its rafters with his deep, resonant vocal tone. Playwright Pailet added depth to the character by highlighting the fact that one can only see what one “wants” to see and thus filter out visual perceptions.

Perhaps the biggest asset to this production are the large ensemble numbers that thrill with a sense of robust exuberance and visceral and rigorous coordination. (I have not seen large ensemble numbers with such implosive energy and excitement for quite a while). Particularly impressive were the proud proclamations in “The South Wales Borderers”, the boisterous defiance in the joltingly alive number “Bastards”, the perceptive and enigmatic sheen of “Don’t Go Talkin ’to the Sniper” and the heartwarming beauty of “Breconshire”. The choreography by Misha Shields is stellar and stimulating.

Surtitles placed on screens on the left- and right-hand sides of the extremely interactive stage space and video design by Patrick W. Lord were incorporated with finesse into the eye-catching scenic design of Christopher & Justin Swader (which beautifully captured the feel of the trenches, barracks, and the natural elements such as the fields and leaves of the trees). 

The music of the talented Mr. Pailet was embodied in songs that shot through the production with alternating propulsive intensity, musical repetition motifs (that beautifully captured the constant reiteration of military orders), and a rangy, iconoclastic beauty. The impeccable music direction was by Myrna Conn and the stunning orchestrations were courtesy of Ryan O’Connell.

An impressive group of six musicians performed on a raised platform at the top of the performing space under the conducting of Marika Countouris.

Lighting design by Jen Schriever was very effectively managed with shafts of light highlighting pivotal moments. Especially effective was a scene where soldiers about to die appeared in ghostly white lighting.

Director of artistic sign language Alexandria Wailes, puppet design by Nicholas Mahon and costume design by Phu’o’ng Nguyen must all be commended.

Private Jones is a musical journey with a message to treasure ---: cooperation and commitment can silence the sound of hatred.

Running Time: Two Hours and 30 including one fifteen -minute intermission.

Private Jones runs through March 10, 2024, at the Signature Theatre located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia, 22206.

Photo credit: Erin Weaver at center as King and the company of  Signature Theatre's World Premeire musical Private Jones. Photo by Daniel Rader.