- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

More than 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, emotions still run high. As might be expected from a musical about that traumatic conflict, Paris Barclay’s “One Red Flower” leaves you rubbed raw.

Inspired by the book “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” “Flower” is receiving a stunning new production at Signature Theatre under the sure direction of Eric Schaeffer.

Mr. Barclay, a television director and writer, paints fervent musical portraits of six soldiers serving “in country” in 1969. The lyrics, the strongest part of the newly revised musical, are based primarily on the actual words of the real-life soldiers. Their poems and letters home are by turns wistful, funny, despairing and always stippled with homesickness.

The score relies on rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of the period, accentuated by wailing electric guitar and heavy percussion. The music reminds you of Jonathan Larsen’s score for “Rent,” only not as explosive and sure.

There’s a melodic sameness to the anthemlike songs. Mr. Barclay seems to do best with such gentle, uncomplicated ballads as “Debby” and “No More Goodbyes.” A handful of the upbeat songs are catchy, such as “Free/Glossary,” a flip medley of military acronyms set to a Beach Boys surfer beat, and “Mud and Blood and Water,” a throbbing rock tune that captures the nightmarish conditions of Vietnam’s battlefields.

Mr. Schaeffer’s handling of the musical numbers is astute. To make these songs work, he pulls out all the stops, beginning with the cast singing in full furor to convey the boiled-over emotions these young soldiers experienced.

High praise goes to the production team, especially for Chris Lee’s dramatic, often khaki-colored lighting; Eric Grims’ camouflage-colored set of corrugated metal and bullet-pocked wooden boxes; and such inspired touches as fans blowing on the audience when choppers are heard overhead.

Michael Clark’s layered projection design is brilliant throughout, but his evocation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the end of the musical gives you such goose bumps you would swear you were actually standing at the monument.

To bring this epistolary musical to life, Mr. Schaeffer has assembled a superb cast of young actors and one Broadway veteran, Florence Lacey, who provides a welcome feminine presence as the mother of one of the soldiers. She seamlessly embodies the loving, conflicted voices of those back home.

Overall, the ensemble creates such lucid, emotionally resonant characters that you experience an acute sense of grief when some of them become casualties of war. You don’t know whether you are mourning the individual soldier or Vietnam as a whole.

Serving as the narrator and touchstone of “One Red Flower” is Spc. 4th Class Billy “Spanky” Bridges (Stephen Gregory Smith), a happy-go-lucky clerk who quickly bores of typing letters and yearns to see action. He gets his wish, and his time in the field hardens and ages him before his time. Mr. Smith has an ingratiating boyish quality and an outstanding voice, but he deepens in stature and clarity as he endures up-close combat.

Charles Hagerty plays with no-sweat dignity the chopper pilot Michael Sandberg, who is gunned down while attempting to rescue eight soldiers. His opposite is Sgt. George McDuffy (Joshua Davis), a gung-ho Southerner who at first seems like a stereotypical hick, until you find out he’s been reading novels by Henry Miller and Hemingway. Kurt Boehm contributes an anguished portrayal of depression and desperation as the POW Pvt. Alan Chisholm.

With jarring intensity, Josh Lefkowitz plays Marion Johnson, a medic who is the questioning, moral force of the piece. The platoon is led by 1st Lt. Kenny Rutherford (Clifton A. Duncan), whose soaring voice and loose-limbed jocularity deliver some of the musical’s lighter moments, especially in “All I Need Is You,” a stoned tribute to the joys of marijuana.

The music and book by Mr. Barclay never quite match the emotional intensity of the subject matter and the performances. Nevertheless, “One Red Flower” potently captures the wrath and harrowing ambiguity of the Vietnam War, a war that continues to haunt Americans.


WHAT: “One Red Flower,” music, book and lyrics by Paris Barclay

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 3.

TICKETS: $30 to $49

PHONE: 703/218-6500


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