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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Arms On Fire
By Elyse Sommer
Thus it's quite a coup for the theater company that calls the Chester Town Hall home to be presenting the world premiere of Sater and Sheik's latest collaboration Arms On Fire. But, while the play's very brief run clearly has its eye on a longer life, this production is best viewed as a work in progress with questionable commercial potential, rather than as a trial run for a big, splashy landing at a prestigious Off-Broadway Theater (Spring Awakening transferred to Broadway from a premiere at the Atlantic Theater).
For starters, though Arms on Fire features a small band (a first for Chester) and songs, all except one sung by Broadway credentialed thespian Natalie Mendoza, it is not a musical. According to its creators it's also something more than a play with music.
Whatever its genre, Arms on Fire is worth seeing for Sater and Sheik's brave attempt to integrate music into the a straight play's story development. Also on the plus side is the exhilarating (if too much so) star turn by James Barry, whose career I've followed with admiration since his days as a student at Berkshire Theater Festival.
Though Sater's byline lacked the clout to spur other productions of Plains in Ilion, it now has considerably more star dust attached to it. If he and Sheik take the time to further develop Arms on Fire, this production might indeed be the first step in a continuing journey.
The play revolves around the deepening relationship that follows the chance meeting between two very different men joined by their love of music from the LP record era and, as it turns out, their respective neediness. The hyper, asthmatic and drug-addicted Smith came to New York to become somebody (specifically, a successful singer). The quiet, laid-back (way too much so as portrayed by Jones) Ulysses came to the city to become part of its anonymous masses in order to forget his disc jockey days in Honduras and love affair with a glamorous, high-living singer named Josefina (Mendoza as her ghost).
Besides not being a musical but a play in which music is an important plot and character developing element, Arms on Fire is not really a new play but a revisted work that had its genesis years before the musical that made Sater and Sheik's famous. It began in 1999 as a script with a different title (Umbrage) for which Sheik wrote some songs. Those songs spawned an album called Phantom Moon, but the play remained on the back burner as Sater and Sheik pursued separate projects that included TV work for Sater and Sheik's recent musical contribution to the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company's new production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Director Byam Stevens has staged the retooled Arms on Fire to make the songs fulfill their story telling function rather than as sandwiched in album songs. Four excellent musicians are neatly positioned behind an upstage scrim. Except for that scrim, Travis A. George's set is too fussy and distracting.
Like the musicians, Mendoza's Josefina appears behind the scrim most of the time, except when her role in Ulysses' life becomes clearer. Mendoza is lovely and has powerful vocal chops to do justice to the songs but the songs as well as her frequent ghostly appearances eventually come off as too much of a good thing.
The song that really sticks to the ear and heart is "A Boat On The Sea" the one that's never been published and new to this production. It's sung by both Smith and Josephina and comes closest to having the appeal of the score and lyrics of Spring Awakening.
The script is leavened with a fair amount of humor, courtesy of Barry's Smith, but essentially this is a serious story with a theme of redemption. That theme is rather hard to embrace given that it involves not just accepting but abetting heroin addiction.
To sum up, Arms on Fire deserves applause for its intriguing even though flawed structure, James Barry's powerhouse performance and that wonderful "A Boat On The Sea" number. However, as it stands now, the show doesn't light a fire powerful enough to support its two hours with intermission length.