Under the Radar 2017: Blueprint Specials and Hundred Days
Wartime frivolity and stateside mortality take center stage at the 2017 Under the Radar Festival.
By Zachary Stewart
Long before Dames at Sea (the satirical backstager that imagines a musical on a battleship), there were the Blueprint Specials, which are now receiving a revival on the hangar deck of the USS Intrepid. The specials were a series of short musicals commissioned by the War Department to boost morale during World War II. The shows were designed to be performed by servicemen and women in all theaters of war using few props and costumes. The creative team included people who would go on to have a major impact on American entertainment: composer Pvt. Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), book writer Pvt. Arnold M. Auerbach (frequent writer for Milton Berle), and choreographer Pvt. José Limón (founder of a dance company that still exists today, members of which appear in the show). All of this makes Blueprint Specials an unmissable historical curiosity, if not a particularly great musical.
This revival actually comprises four separate specials that director and Waterwell cofounder Tom Ridgely has spliced together: A 45-person cast of civilians and military veterans perform a show that at times feels like a revue, a book musical, and a series of induction sketches. "We can lick the Axis with prophylaxis," one character helpfully says in a routine about sexual hygiene. There are recurring characters, like the Greek goddess, Pallas (the ever-delightful Laura Osnes), who descends from Olympus to join the girls as Private Mary Brown. This is despite the objections of her husband, Jupiter (a deliciously dry Will Swenson). Sporting a sonorous voice straight out of the big band era, Emily McAleesjergins plays an unloved MP (she is currently active duty and a vocalist for the West Point band). An old-fashioned physical comedian, Quinn Mattfeld runs away with the show as the clownish Private Sad Sack, making this material spring to life whenever he walks onstage.
Unfortunately, not every actor pops quite as much, and Ridgely's breezy direction leaves some performances blowing in the wind (it is never a good idea to have actors sit on the floor when the stage is so low and the audience is not raked). Still, there is a DIY spirit that feels appropriate. Andrea Lauer's budget sets and costumes use found materials to create a variety of exotic locales and characters, just as the soldiers performing them would have.
Wearing a snazzy red-sequined tuxedo, music director Sonny Paladino energetically leads the band. His arrangements don't skimp on the brass or woodwinds, leading to a sound that feels authentic to the period.
In writing the show, Auerbach and Loesser clearly knew their audience: Sketches about army bureaucracy and tyrannical drill sergeants surely would have resonated with the GIs. The song "When He Comes Home" features a girl assuring us that her fighting man will come straight to her when he gets back. As performed by the doe-eyed Mandy Striph, it offers a bittersweet mix of optimism and dread, the unspoken word "if" hovering over the number.
The intent of the work doesn't always translate to a modern civilian audience: A ballet featuring a bunch of men in tutus flitting across the stage while playing basketball must have killed in 1945. At Under the Radar, it receives mild chuckles.
Theatrical slack aside, Blueprint Specials is mostly watchable and undoubtedly fascinating. It is impossible not to appreciate what this show for soldiers by soldiers would have meant to the men and women fighting fascism. This is a musical that regularly mocks the entity footing the bill for its production, beautifully conveying the spirit of a nation confident in the virtue of its democracy. It's a refreshing reminder in 2017.
By David Gordon
Within the span of 100 days, Abigail and Shaun Bengson met, went on a cross-country road trip, and got married. At a certain point over that three-month period, Abigail also began remembering a recurring childhood dream: She meets the man she wants to be with forever and he dies on the 100th day of their relationship.
The foreboding link between love and mortality looms over Hundred Days, the Bengsons' mesmerizing Under the Radar festival production at the Public's Anspacher Theater. As they subtly point out, the connection between the two is inextricable. But here, mortality takes on a pair of different meanings. In Abigail's eyes, it's death, specifically Shaun's. In Shaun's eyes, it's the idea of Abigail not loving him back, a fate much worse (to him) than death.
On a drive from Queens to Sacramento they decide to live out the rest of their potential time together as best they can, cramming 60 years of experiences into that one trip. But will this solve the problem, or make it worse?
As a theatrical concert, Hundred Days packs a wallop for anyone who has ever loved and lost. Abigail and Shaun are thoroughly relatable everyday people, and their self-described "anthemic folk-punk" score is as exciting and poignant as it gets. As actor-narrators, they're a charming, self-deprecating couple, not afraid to dig deeper in service of the dramatic moments. In this way, the work (credited to them, with additional material by Sarah Gancher), also satisfies an audience's basic need for good drama. A climactic scene features no music at all and is potent enough to rival the emotional fireworks of a play like The Humans.
Anne Kauffman, a director who specializes in theatrically conveying the dread of daily life, expertly allows a menacing melancholia to seep in through the cracks here until it becomes all we can think about. She's aided by the lighting of designer Andrew Hungerford, whose display of hanging bulbs resembles stars in a night sky, and the set and projections of Kris Stone, who provides the feeling the walls are closing in even when they're not.
Hundred Days is the latest entry in a fledgling genre, one that includes shows like Benjamin Scheuer's The Lion and Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet, but like all great theater should, it takes this one step further. Abigail and Shaun Bengson are devoted life and performing partners, sure to gain a dedicated following.