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One Red Flower

by Rich See

Why do we have to die for the silly games that American politicians play? Why?
---Medic and Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson

Stephen Gregory Smith with Florence Lacey
S. G. Smith and F. Lacey (Photo: Carol Pratt)

Signature Theatre opens its 15th anniversary season with the world premiere of Paris Barclay's gritty and emotional Vietnam War musical One Red Flower. In Signature's capable hands the stage becomes a bombed out landscape of fox holes, landings strips, and hellish prisons as the cast sings about death, dying, and the futility of war.

Based upon the book Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, One Red Flower takes these real letters and creates songs upon the common themes of the men in battle. It's an interesting idea that works better in thought than on paper. While a good musical, after 18 years and 24 drafts, it's not a great musical. And with twenty songs, it's still about 30 minutes too long and oddly goes for a very obvious (you knew it was coming in the first thirty minutes) final tear jerk in the last moments.

A powerful play is one that leaves you walking out of the theater thinking "Hmmm... I have to rethink my ideas about..." An emotional play is one that leaves you walking out of the theater with tear-stained cheeks. One Red Flower is an emotional musical that Signature has crafted into a technically well-constructed, vocally delightful production.

Director Eric Schaeffer's cast is solid and filled with exceptional voices. Eric Grims' set is wonderfully multi-use and pulls the audience into being a part of the war zone. Chris Lee's lighting hits all the marks and his creation of rain is inspired. The way projection designer Michael Clark has the letters superimposed on everything is very inventive as is the appearance of The Wall.

Among the songs -- which are all quite good, but you don't leave the theater really remembering any of them -- "(There Will Still Be) Christmas," "If You Are Able," "I Don't Understand This War," "4:16 AM," and "The Land Of Make Believe" rise to the top.

The voices within the seven-member cast ultimately make the production. Clifton A. Duncan as First Lieutenant Kenny Rutherford fills the theater with his vocals. As do Charles Hagerty (Warrant Officer Michael Sandberg) and Florence Lacey (Eleanor Bridges). Kurt Boehm provides the most compelling performance as Private First Class Alan Chisholm. Captured in the first act and spending his time on stage in a small prison cell, his slow almost unspoken descent into depression is heart-wrenching and disturbing. Josh Lefkowitz' Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson provides the anti-war point of view to Joshua Davis' Sergeant George McDuffy's pro-war talk. And Stephen Gregory Smith's Specialist Fourth Class Billy "Spanky" Bridges provides the emotional connection to the U.S. via frequent letters to his mother, Eleanor. Smith and Lacey provide many heartfelt moments between mother and son whenever they appear on stage together.

Set in 1969 and covering a year in the life of these six young men, Mr. Barclay does a good job of incorporating the changes occurring in American society while the men are fighting. Neil Armstrong's moon landing, pro-peace demonstrations, marijuana, long hair, civil rights all make their way from the homeland to the war front. And each impacts the soldiers' lives, except for PFC Alan Chisholm. In real life, Mr. Chisholm became a POW in 1965 and spent seven and a half years in a prisoner of war camp. When he was finally released and returned to the United States in 1973, he fell into a deep depression and four months after his return killed himself, a post-war casualty of a war too few people understood. It was only this year that his name -- after several legal battles -- was added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

One Red Flower
Music by Paris Barclay
Book and Lyrics adapted for the stage by Paris Barclay from the book Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam edited by Bernard Edelman
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
with Kurt Boehm, Joshua Davis, Clifton A. Duncan, Charles Hagerty, Josh Lefkowitz, Stephen Gregory Smith, and Florence Lacey
Musical Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch
Set Design: Eric Grims
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Costume Design: Jenn Miller
Sound Design: Tony Angelini
Projection Design: Michael Clark
Orchestrations: Jo Lynn Burks
Property Design: Elsie Jones
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA
Telephone: 703-218-6500
TUE - WED @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SUN @2 and 7; $30 - $49
Opening 08/17/04, closing 10/03/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 08/29/04 performance
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