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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Arms On Fire

"You were my soul and my silence, you were my hope, my lightness" — Ulysses about the woman singing on his record player.
Arms On Fire
James Barry (Smith),Guiesseppe Jones (Ulysses)
(Photo credit: Rick Teller)
There's been quite a bit of buzz in the quiet little Massachussetts town of Chester. A lot more than back in 1998 when I reviewed The Plains of Ilion by a new to me (and most people) playwright named Steven Sater. But between then and now Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have joined the top tier of musical theater innovators. Spring Awakening , their multi-award winning adaptation of Frank Wedekind's steamy 1891 drama became a super hit that's still frequently produced. Consequently, any work with their names below the title generates instant excitement.

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.

Arms on Fire
Playwright: Steven Sater
Composer: Duncan Sheik
Directed by: Byam Stevens
Cast: James Barry (Smith), Guiesseppe Jones (Ulysses),Natalie Mendoza (Josephina
Set Design: Travis A. George
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Costume Design: Charles Schoonmaker
Sound Design: Hunter Spoede
Stage Manager: Erin Patrick
Musicians: Music Director/Guitar, Joe Belmont; Piano/Harmonium, Zack Cross; Drums/Percussion, Joe Fitzpatrick; Bass, Rhees Williams.
Running Time: 2 hours including 1 intermission
Chester Theater on Middlefield Road in Chester MA (413) 354-7771,
From 6/26/13; closing 7/07/13
Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Admission: $17.50 (Saturday night rush), $30 to $35
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/27/13 press performance

Song List (Not included in the Program)

Longing Town (Josephina & Ulysses)
A Mirror In The Heart (josephina & Ulysses)
Far Away (Josephina & Smith)
Mr. Chess (Josephina)
A Boat On The Sea (Smith & Josephina)
Mouth On Fire (Josephina)
This Is How My Heart Heard (Josephina & Ulysses)
The Winds That Blow (Josephina)
A Boat On The Sea - Reprise (Smith & Josephina)
Mouth On Fire - Reprise(Josephina)
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