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A CurtainUp Review

War Music
By Laura Hitchcock

Bryan Davidson looked to history for the inspiration for his trio of one-act plays about the impact of World Wars I and II on three composers but, of course, the material is true of anybody's war. Produced initially by tiny Echo Theatre and Playwrights Arena where it won the Ovation Award for World Premiere Play, the production has leapfrogged to the much larger Geffen Theatre with director and cast intact, a bigger budget to play with and time for the playwright to do some fine-tuning. The result both in content and production values is well worth the time and trouble.

The first play's musician/compoer is Frank Bridge, played by Victor Raider-Wexler, whose beguiling jovial humanity is a warm keynote for the play. And lest you think its going to be all drama, its not long before there's a hilarious sight gag of a doctor (Christopher Shaw) with a huge erection yearning for the "healing touch" of beautiful Nurse Poole.

Jeremy Maxwell plays the young protagonist in each of the three plays with impressive virtuosity. In the first, he's the pianist-soldier who loses a hand in World War I, thus inspiring Bridge to write a one-handed composition for him. In the second, he's a young Austrian church bellringer whose passionate desire to study with musician Anton Webern leads to disaster. This play alternates between 1945 and 1955, following the destructive guilt of the American soldier who shot Webern.

The third play, the weakest of the trio, spends a little too much time with three POWs who have formed a musical trio. One passes the time telling "Polish jokes" about the clarinetist while waiting for Olivier Messiaen (Maxwell again) to show up with the music. Messiaen has been following the figure of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, a Madonna from a medieval painting (Nancy Bell, who also plays the statue of Our Lady in classical robes in the second play. This is the first time I recall seeing a Madonna who got a costume change)

There's very little actual music in the play but Davidson's writing has a lyric quality of its own. Director Jessica Kubzansky paints the stage with stunning visual compositions and brings out the humor in the piece, as well as its humanity. She's ably assisted by one of the best ensembles in Geffen history to interpret the variety of strong roles Davidson has provided. It's no wonder they followed this play like limpets wherever it has played.

Kevin Crowley veers from cracker humor to threatening mania. Tina Holmes's prissy clarity underlines the numbskull hypocracy of slogans devised for women during World War I. John Prosky displays quirky humor as the orderly in the first play and ranges "farther in and further down" from a birdbrained private to a man haunted by guilt in Play Two. Christopher Shaw's most memorable turn is the lustful cynical doctor in Play One.

Creative elements include Susan Gratch's set design which makes the proscenium arch into a musical score; Michael Gilliam's lighting design which almost unaided makes a battlefield into a field of dreams; Elizabeth Palmer's costumes ranging from the Madonna's exquisite flowing robes to site-specific soldier costumes. Between the first and second productions of this play, Davidson was commissioned to write Banned and Burned in America by the Greenway Court Theatre (See our review), which extended his opportunity for character.

Playwright: Bryan Davidson
Director: Jessica Kubzansky
Cast: Nancy Bell (Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Nurse Poole, Helen Bell); Victor Raider-Wexler (Frank Bridge, Sacristan, German Soldier #2); Christopher Shaw (Anton Webern, Dr. Ely, Heinrich, Jean LeBoulaire, German Soldier #1); Jeremy Maxwell (Olivier Messiaen, Lance Corporal Douglas Fox, Dieter); Kevin Crowley (Pvt. Barkley, Helmut, Sgt. Murray, Etienne Pasquier, Cpl. Gurney); Tina Holmes (A Mother, Elizabeth Bell, Christine Mattel, Claire Delbos); John Prosky (Mr. Denby, PFC Raymond Bell, Henri Akoka). Set Design: Susan Gratch
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: Elizabeth Palmer
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes with one intermission
Running Dates: January 21-February 22, 2004
Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, Ph:
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock
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