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ArtsCenter Stage's latest production is Joan Littlewood's musical entertainment Oh, What a Lovely War! This musical treatment of World War I as the War to End All Wars looks laconically at the high enthusiasm with which the Allies joined the war, believing that the Germans were a soft target and that the war would be over in a few short months. A cast of eleven clever ensemble players brings this entertainment to life, ranging in ages from pre-teen (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) to senior (Ian Bowater). The fact that there was such enthusiasm about the war, and that it was so mishandled by those in charge, is presented with tongue firmly in cheek, as the Allies resolutely assemble onstage.
The production is played out on a unique and substantial set designed by James Carnahan, incorporating trenches as well as stage sets. Musical director Glenn Merhbach directs the ensemble in and around these trenches, in dance numbers choreographed by Killian Manning. These numbers, and indeed the entire show, are marked with high energy by this nimble cast. Costumes, designed by Marissa Erickson, use sashes to indicate the major players in the show, such as Kaiser Wilhelm (John Paul Middlesworth) or members of the Allied countries (England, France, Russia).
Assisting this scintillating ensemble is a trio of musicians (Leslie Wickham, piano; Matthew Glosson, drums; and Andrew McClenney, bass) with additional help from ensemble member Julie Oliver, who exhibits yet another talent on her long list as a trumpet player.
Most every scene is performed by the ensemble with solos by individual members, most notably Ian Bowater, who acts as a sort of emcee as he and his whistle sort out what’s what in the pre-war games, played out by various country members ("Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser" – Marcia Edmundson). As these games move into the war itself, we see the zeal with which the Allies throw men at the problem ("I’ll Make A Man of You" – Jeri Lynn Schulke, Chloe Oliver, Julie Oliver). But as the war drags on from months into years, and the casualties mount, the war becomes a farce ("We’re 'Ere Because We"re 'Ere" – ensemble). From that moment on, the war amasses casualties measured in millions, with very little to show for it ("Gassed Last Night" – ensemble).
As this intrepid troupe plays out the tenacious enthusiasm of the brass, a screen upstage center reveals the casualty lists of the various battles that take place. In what seems to be a reaction oblivious to reality, the Allies' command continues to attack and attack, even as men are wiped out by the battalion. In direct contrast, the rank and file have lost their zeal ("I Don’t Want to be a Soldier" – Lazarus Simmons). By the time this bloody War to End All Wars is concluded, over ten million lives are lost ("The Bells of Hell" – ensemble). But before this musical entertainment is over, director Hope Alexander adds just a few minutes of video to show that life, and strife, go on, from the end of World War I through World War II and beyond. This final video ends with a hopeful single word, "Imagine" ("And When They Ask Us" – ensemble).
The whole is a scintillating and entertaining evening, with music aplenty and high-energy dance. The only fly in the ointment was, at the beginning of the show, the voices of the ensemble were muddled. It took about half of Act I for the group to settle in and the words to become clear; until that point, we understood little of what was going on. Once the fog cleared, however, both the diction and the words became clean, and we were swept up in the action and enthusiasm of the play. Outstanding performances by Page Purgar, Geraud Staton, and Germain Choffart added to our enjoyment.
The ArtsCenter's Friday night performance of Oh, What a Lovely War! packed a punch and kept us on the edge of our seats. An ensemble cast operated fluidly and with panache, revealing the scars of war and the lunacy of such endeavor. It was a monument to sanity, and a song for peace.
Oh, What a Lovely War! continues through Sunday, May 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.