by Samuel L. Leiter
Some may consider Clark Gable’s parting shot at Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind Hollywood’s most iconic moment, but not far behind would be Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s sizzling love scene in the surf in the 1953 film version of James Jones’s best seller From Here to Eternity. A pale impression of that scene—standing up, not lying down, and with a flash of female rear-end nudity—ends the first act of the even paler musical adaptation of the novel, which opened on the West End at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in October 2013 and ran for six and a half months. CineStage, a platform hosted by Omniverse Vision who produce and distribute “event cinema,” have since preserved it in video format and it has played in select venues throughout the U.S.
The show’s marketing campaign exploits the return to bigtime musical writing of lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), but good lyrics, even when combined with moderately successful music (by Stuart Brayson), can’t compensate for Bill Oakes’s leaden book and dialogue (“I would rather avoid discourse with any man who chooses to lurk in doorways”), nor the labored acting under Tamara Harvey’s heavy-handed direction.
Regardless of the restoration of raw profanity and a homosexual subplot that Jones was forced to excise when the book was published in 1951 (the unexpurgated version appeared in 2011), the material, despite its sharp criticism of Army life (based on Jones’s experiences), no longer surprises or shocks. And, without anyone even beginning to approach the believability of the movie’s stars (among them Montgomery Clift and an Oscar-winning Frank Sinatra), its multi-plot narrative strains to create any centrifugal force demanding continued attention. One needn’t have seen the film to feel the sledgehammer obviousness of the acting, intensified by the ruthlessness of the camera’s eye. You want shouting? Have I got a show for you!
The show covers the novel’s three main plotlines. First is the affair between upstanding but emotionally conflicted First Sergeant Milt Warden (Darius Campbell) and Karen Holmes (Rebecca Thornhill), the sexually frustrated wife of Company G’s commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Martin Marquez). Then there’s the Kentucky enlistee, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale), who refuses to box competitively for Company G because he once blinded a friend in the ring, and who gets a sadistic hazing for his obstinacy. Finally, there’s the puny Private Angelo Maggio (Ryan Sampson), a cocky Italian-American whose ethnicity makes him the target of vicious harassment, thus inciting his insubordination. Maggio, ostensibly straight, makes extra money by rolling “queers,” which allows for a scene in which he tries to get Prewitt to do the same.
Threading these separate plotlines through a thick novel is one thing; doing it in a two-hour and twenty-five minute musical, where everything must be boiled down to skeletal essentials, leaving time for songs and dances, is another. The nearly humorless effort replaces truthfulness with histrionics, reality with plastic. Nor does it help that a cast of all-UK actors is playing a wide variety of American types; it takes more than accents to make these folks authentic.
Twenty songs, plus reprises of many, offer a tune-filled experience, but few do more than underscore the emotional states of the characters or their attitudes toward their situations; rarely do they move the plot forward. They come in a variety of styles, from blues to swing to prewar pop styles, mixing ballads and up-tempo numbers, some highly appealing. Standout ballads are Karen’s “Another Language” and “Run Along, Joe,” sung by Lorene (Siubhan Harrison), the prostitute Prewitt falls for. “The Boys of ‘41,” a rousingly patriotic tune sung by the company, arrives shortly before the final curtain.
Film director Nick Morris covers the staging from multiple angles, including swooping overhead shots, so the visual effect is far from static. Javier de Frutos’s choreographic patterns are well captured, especially those in which Company G goes through routines combining drill movements with their cots (as in “G Company Blues”) or engage in slo-mo fisticuffs. The lighting of Bruno Poet is dynamic, and Jon Driscoll’s projections, often using animation (ocean waves, Japanese aircraft), allow the cinematic script to easily shift locales on Soutra Gilmour’s stripped down, flexible set. Gilmour’s costumes—especially the women’s—are suitably in colorful period mode (although a see-through blouse worn by Lorene is questionable). Hairstyles look right but one wonders who allowed Mr. Lonsdale to sport anachronistic facial stubble.
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).