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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Unknown Soldier

They call me the living unknown soldier— Derek Klena, as the title character's plaintive song about his in limbo state
unknown soldier

Derek Klena as Francis Grand) and Lauren Worsham as Lucy Lemay. (Photograph T. Charles Erickson)
This summer at the venerable Williamstown Theatre Festival has brought its usual array of something old/something new offerings, with starry by-lines, casts and directors to keep the seats filled in both its elegant main stage and smaller Nikos Theater. But it took a new musical, Unknown Soldier, commissioned by former WTF and Boston's Huntington Theater artistic director Nicholas Martin in 2008 to be the Festival's, and in fact, the entire season's really big Wow.

This is a musical epic, with an operatic sweep. Though its story falls just short of spanning a full century (1918 to the Present) and covers multiple locations, it all plays out in just 90 minutes. The varied and melodic score is composed by Michael Friedman (whose best known credits include Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and his scores for plays by the innovative group, The Civilians). Daniel Goldstein, previously working as a director, makes an auspicious debut as libretto and lyric writer. represent an auspicious move from directing While Unknown Soldier has gone through various permutations, busy director Trip Cullman's innovatively staged full production is, with a few diddles and refinements, ready for prime time.

The range and sweep of the story you're about to see is evident even as you take your seat. The stage is already filled with ensemble members representing Cornell University's research library staff members. They're apparently busy with going through archives of photos and records of World War I, which includes those of the title character, a young veteran who survived, but with a complete loss of memory and coping ability (a timely link to what we've become all too familiar with as post traumatic stress syndrome). Mark Wendland's modernistic set evokes a sense of mystery and the story of that young soldier and how his picture landed in the home of a Troy, New York family is indeed a mystery. That aura of that set is strongly and beautifully supported by lighting designer Ben Stanton. It effectively accommodates various other locations. The set also subtly accommodates the small band: flashbacks to the hospital where the young soldier is treated and wishful wives and mothers claim him as their own. . . . Grand Central station in 1918 and the Present. . .and segues beteen office of a key researcher Andrew Hoffman (Erik Lochtefeld) and Ellen Rabinowitz (Jessica Phillips) in the Troy house she inherited from the grandmother who raised her (Estelle Parsons).

Andrew and Ellen's efforts to track down the connection between the photo of her grandmother as a beautiful young woman morph into playbacks of those long gone events, with Lauren Worsham playing the role of the young woman at the heart of this star crossed lovers' saga. The past and present scenes are book-ended by Clara Young as Young Ellen and Estelle Parsons as Ellen's grandmother (it's a fairly small but much more satisfying role for Parsons than her earlier appearance in Off The Main Road).

The elegant and fluid staging clarifies all this segueing back and forth, with different actors playing the key characters at different stages of the story. Despite this, it is a bit confusing, which would be easily avoided if the program included a song list with scene settings, the titles and who's singing. While I'm quibbling, the scene in which Andrew actually shows up at Ellen's home doesn't really build their joint efforts to track down the facts behind that mysterious photograph into a viable secondary romance.

David Greenspan (Doctor) and Christina Sajous (Nurse). Photograph T. Charles Erickson
But, these negatives notwithstanding, I stand by my opening declaration that this is a genuine Wow. What could easily be a soap opera attains a Sondheimian, Kander and Ebb memorability by virtue of its terrific score and inventive structure.

No complaints either about the cast for the current production. Derek Klena is immensely touching as the amnesiac soldier. He also sings superbly. Lauren Worsham brings a thrilling soprano to the role of the one-night stand war bride Lucy Lemay.

David Greenspan one of the New York Stage's most adventurous and riveting actors is listed only for the understated role of the Doctor treating the soldier. He brings his more unique talents to a scene in which he partners with Christina Sajous as well as a vaudeville interlude. This last may strike some as extraneous, but they are splendid enhancements to authenticate the period scenes reminiscent of the famous Loveland segment in Kander & Ebbs' Follies. A final bravo to Clint Ramos for the period and character enhancing costumes. Make that a double bravo.

Unknown Soldier
Book & Lyrics by Daniel Goldstein
Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Directed by Trip Cullman
Choreographed by Pattrick McCollum
Cast: Clara Young (Young Ellen/ Lucy Rabinowitz), Erik Lochtefeld (Andrew), Estelle Parsons (Lucy Anderson), Lauren Worsham (Lucy Lemay), David Greenspan (Doctor), Derek Klena (Francis Grand), Christina Sajous (Nurse), Jessica Phillips (Ellen Rabinowitz), Dan Iwrey, Ned Riseley, Amanda Schechtman, Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble)
Scenic Design: Mark Wendland
Music Director: Marco Paguia
Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Marco Paguia
Costumes: , Clint Ramos
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Sound: Leon Roetheberg
Production Design: Lucy Mackinnon
Wig Design: Charles LaPointe
Stage Manager: Becky Fleming

Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Marco Paguia
Band: Marco Paguia (Piano), Fred Dechristofaro (Flute and Clarinet), Mark Foster (Percussion), Erick Pickhardt (Cello), Hiroko Taguchi (Violin and Guitar)
From 7/30/15/closing 8/09/15
Nikos Stage - Williamstown Theatre Festival
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at August 2nd matinee
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