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Theatre in Review: The Lieutenant (York Theatre Company/Theatre at St. Jean's)

Anthony Festa. Photo: Rider Foster

For the latest entry in its Musicals in Mufti series, York Theatre Company has taken a deep dive into the murky depths of musical theatre history, bringing back a fascinating cultural artifact. Is there a musical theatre fan not tantalized by the opportunity to see this piece, which suffered a calamitous fate in 1975? In a season that rightly could be called a nadir for the form, The Lieutenant opened, got good reviews, closed after nine performances, and promptly earned a raft of Tony and Drama Desk nominations. As far as I can tell, it hasn't seen the light of day since.

That The Lieutenant is a rock opera about the My Lai massacre probably raised many eyebrows, and more than a few hackles at the time. But, as Charles Wright's fascinating program note points out, a half-century ago, the ranks of Broadway producers were swollen with poseurs, amateurs, and trust fund babies, all eager to be the next David Merrick -- in most cases, ending up closer to the next Max Bialystock. Such was the case of the amateurishly produced The Lieutenant, which was so desperately undercapitalized that it couldn't stay open long enough to reap the benefits of potential awards. To be fair, audiences, weary of the war and the divisions it caused, might not have been up for an excoriating Vietnam tuner. (In this respect, it may resemble another Mufti presentation from the same era, Lolita, My Love, a surprisingly good adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel that was instant box office poison thanks to its dicey subject matter.)

A taut, through-composed musical built on the Brechtian model, The Lieutenant is a blunt force instrument wielded with considerable skill in Bill Castellino's production. It takes a little while to marshal its forces; the first few numbers, detailing the title character's enlistment and indoctrination in the military, come across as glib political agitprop very much of its time. (The score, by Chuck Strand, Gene Curty, and Nitra McAuliffe, who also wrote the book and lyrics, is very much of the period, with, at different moments, echoes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Galt MacDermot, and Stephen Schwartz.) To be sure, the show deals, to a dangerous degree, in generalities; you must accept that the nameless title character, a version of Lt. William Calley, is a blank everyman, a Mr. Cellophane without a will of his own.

Then again, psychology is beside the point; The Lieutenant is primarily interested in how the title character is processed by the American military machine, remade into an action figure incapable of making moral distinctions, and -- when he follows orders too closely, laying waste to a village's civilian population -- branded a rogue killer by superiors desperate for a scapegoat. This sorry story is put over by a torrent of driving musical numbers that override the writers' most obvious intentions, keeping one consistently engaged. The rollicking recruitment song, "Join the Army" features a striking use of counterpoint melody; it is brought back for a scathing reprise at the finale. "I Don't Want to Go to Vietnam," delivered by a cadre of reluctant recruits, has a piercing melancholy. The wordless "Quiet Village," here accompanied by projections (by Peter Brucker and Matthew Gurren) of a scruffy rural village and Vietnamese farmers, makes clear who the real victims are in the carnage to come. "Something's Gone Wrong Here," delivered by the Lieutenant and his Captain, is a powerful statement of moral revulsion and finger-pointing. The climactic trial, loaded with posturing and fierce denunciations, features several gripping musical passages.

Castellino has also corralled an astonishing collection of voices for this endeavor. In the title role, Anthony Festa all but blows the building down, especially in the aria "On Trial for My Life," his powerful vocals helping to make up for his character's lack of dimension. In a company where everyone gets his or her moment to shine, the standouts include Dan Domenech as the Captain who wants to bury the entire incident; Travis Kent as the prosecutor, especially in the anthemic "The Conscience of the Nation;" and Noah Christopher Ruebeck as a new recruit who is all too likely to follow in the Lieutenant's footsteps. (Other design credits include solid lighting by John Salutz and sound by Brucker.

Apparently, the original production featured highly athletic choreography, which probably kicked things up a notch; this is largely a concert staging, so there are moments when the action slows down or freezes for a musical passage. The lyrics are sometimes clumsier than one would like, with many false rhymes. And I rather doubt that, due to changing attitudes, a full production of this piece would reach a wide audience today. We don't see the military in such a sinister light nowadays and a new piece about this episode would, most likely, focus on the Vietnamese instead.

Nevertheless, The Lieutenant is a work of real quality that dares to wonder how a perfectly average man can be made to commit atrocities without a second's thought. At the very least, it deserves to be recorded. This is one of the Mufti's series' best finds, an indelible reminder of another period in American history when dissension ruled. For musical theatre fans, it's unmissable; for everyone else, it's worth a look. --David Barbour

(11 September 2023)

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