Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
By all rights, Leslie Arden should be the toast of Broadway. Yet in this age of compulsive irony, fractured storytelling, jukebox scoring and a newborn enthusiasm for vaudeville shtick, Arden — a Canadian composer-lyricist of enormous sophistication and grace — might possess too much fervor and intelligence to find her place there.
What a pity. But the good news is this: For one more week, aficionados of new musicals can head to Northwestern University’s Barber Theatre to catch her hugely impressive new show, “The Boys Are Coming Home,” the second offering of the school’s recently established American Music Theatre Project.
With a score that includes swing, sublime ballads, searing duets — and even operetta — the show arrives with songs that are character-driven and beautifully integrated into the story, yet can stand on their own. Arden’s lyrics are an ideal blend of the poetic and colloquial, matched to a musical line that has the naturalness of speech.
The book for the show — an updated gloss on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” as envisioned by Canadian writer Berni Stapleton — needs some cutting and polishing to match the high standard of Arden’s lyrics. But even so, there is an embarrassment of riches in place. The overall level of production is exceedingly high, too, with fluid direction by Gary Griffin (of Broadway’s “The Color Purple”); zesty period choreography by Timothy French; solid design work (by Tom Burch and Nan Zabriskie), and best of all, some remarkably skilled performances by Northwestern theater students (supplemented by just a few professional “ringers”), and musicians (guided by musical director-conductor-doctoral student Travis J. Cross).
The story is about the fallout of war, particularly the social changes that hit a small Connecticut factory town just after World War II. As “the boys” come home, the women — crucial to the homefront work force during the war — are quickly ousted from their jobs by returning soldiers and are expected to return to the traditional roles of wife and mother. Along with relief and joy after the war come feelings of resentment and confusion. And it’s not just the shift in gender roles, but the subtle, gnawing hostility between the vets and men who were not able to serve in the military, as well as the lingering “homefront” battle between blacks and whites. All this is played out through three romantically involved couples.
Helen Nathaniel (Emily Thompson, whose “girl next door” looks are paired with a silvery voice) has worked as a nurse while waiting four years for her beloved Lt. Charlie Miller (Jarrod Zimmerman). The rocky road to their relationship is hinted at from the start with the fine split-screen song “You Could Never Understand.” But their plans for an instant marriage run amok when Miller, emotionally unsteady after four years at war, quickly believes a rumor spread by the jealous non-soldier, John McAfree (Michael Rosenblum), that her virtue has been “compromised.”
For comic relief there are the modern Beatrice and Benedick of Shakespeare’s play — played by Catherine Brookman (a sort of Angela Lansbury in the making, who has just completed her freshman year and already can knock your socks off with her comic timing and vocal abilities) and James Rank, a Chicago actor with a droll take on his character. This Bea is a Rosie the Riveter type who was an ace factory foreman until she was replaced by a vet. The object of her teasing and taunting is one Capt. Ben Taylor. Their showstopping duet, “Love Letters,” makes it clear that they are wary but in love.
Finally, there is the relationship between Maggie Lincoln (the radiant and always dynamic Harriet Nzinga Plumpp), the black woman who works as a housekeeper but moonlights as a band singer, and her white lover, musician-songwriter Brad Garrett (a cool, easy performance by Ross Brendlinger). Maggie initially rejects Brad’s marriage proposal, terrified that racism will destroy his career and any chance for happiness.
Morgan Weed — a top-notch comedian, a terrific acrobatic dancer and a fine singer — is invariably a spicy presence as Helen’s best friend, Shirley. And veteran Chicago actor Jonathan Weir — full of gravitas as Helen’s dad, Leo — makes the most of the beautifully wistful song, “I Don’t Know You,” in which he sees the ghost of his late wife in his soon-to-be-married daughter.
Wherever it goes next, “The Boys Are Coming Home” deserves a long and productive stage life. And if the National Endowment for the Arts were really on the ball, it would pick up this show in its current form and tour it to every military base in the country.
Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star
If you like puzzles, you will love Leslie Arden. The woman generally acknowledged to be the finest composer/lyricist of musical theatre and the creator of some of the most sophisticated work on our stages…lives on a working farm near Barrie, Ontario, and originally thought she was going to pursue a career as a veterinarian.