Early in "For the Boys," the premiering stage musical based on the 1991 Bette Midler movie, a young woman called Dixie Leonard arrives in World War II London to perform with her new partner, Eddie Sparks.
Suddenly the power on the base goes out. And the character of Dixie, created for the film by Midler, believes that no USO performer can sing without any lights. But the troops watching this song-dance-and-comedy duo (fictional creations, but not unlike Martha Raye and Bob Hope) come up with their own solution. At the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, you hear voices from the back of the house, and it seems like thousands of personal, standard-issue flashlights have filled the theater, and Dixie, with light. Dixie does her song.
It is a deeply emotional moment — tears welled in my eyes — because it uses an inherently theatrical metaphor to illustrate what all USO performers came to know at that time: These were not the usual performances. For the men and women in uniform, they were many things at once: escape, glamour, emotional release, a taste of home and a reminder of the reasons for the anguish of the fight. The performers weren't just celebrities in the colder modern sense. They were surrogate girlfriends, fathers and mothers. And to carry those burdens to a show was, at once, daunting, invigorating, tricky for one's personal life, and, for many entertainers, impossible to stop doing. Lest one wither away.
As they do in the movie, those themes oscillate around Aaron Thielen's very promising and intriguing new musical (impressively, Thielen's first such assignment). But the stage version of "For the Boys" — which had its entertaining world premiere Friday night in suburban Lincolnshire under Marc Robin's typically fluid, visually rich and fast-paced direction — has yet to figure out how to take what was basically a plot-heavy movie with songs and turn it into a stage musical with time to breathe and a theatrical reason for being.
This does not necessarily require an original score — although there is strong case for going that route with this particular material — but it does require allowing characters to sing from the American songbook at pivotal moments. As it now stands, this is a jukebox musical where the songs (such standards as "You Are My Sunshine," "Rag Mop," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "What a Wonderful World") are mostly wallpaper when they should be carrying us along to the next time and place we need to go. We see Eddie and Dixie meet death on the battlefield: they've little to say, and nothing to sing. We wonder if they might fall in love (despite other spouses), but they don't really sing about how they feel. In fact, when you look back on Timothy Gulan's very savvy and laudably unsentimental performance as the gregarious but intermittently self-loathing Eddie — whom we see grow old as he moves from war to war — you struggle to remember a moment from the show when this formidable vocalist was actually allowed to deliver an entire full-throated number. Michele Ragusa's ambitious Dixie has more with which to work, but not yet enough.
For it's only in the rare moments when the show settles and the numbers actually advance the story, as during the terrific scene with the flashlights, that you get a glimpse of how incredibly well suited this material is to the stage.
Right now, the show fails to sufficiently explore the central question: why Sparks and Leonard want, need, to be with each other and their military audiences. And, more significantly, it also doesn't yet show us the two central characters coming to realize the magnitude of their military assignments, especially when compared with the pettiness of showbiz back home. That's what "For the Boys" has to do if it is to make it to Broadway and, more importantly, be worthy of the people of the USO and those they entertained.
The movie-based plot requires Dixie to actually encounter her serving husband and, later, her son, as she performs for the troops in different wars. The fate of her own loved ones informs Dixie's life. That's fine to a point, but the bigger, less selfish point is that she's every soldier's wife back home, and every soldier's girlfriend, just as Eddie is their best pal and their dad, and not just himself. Instead of allowing innately personal concerns to so dominate the show, Thielen and Ragusa have to hone in on what matters emotionally.
When a movie becomes a musical, you gotta let go of some of the plot. Folks gotta sing. Folks gotta dance. Folks gotta connect. Instead of spending so much time with a plethora of talky, broadly played subplots — ranging from the fate of the duo's black-listed, left-leaning writer (passionately played by Michael Weber) to network politics and the censorship of their TV show — we have to engage with simpler, deeper matters. Who cares about the TV show? This is supposed to be for the boys. Strangely, Robin never gets to stage a full-on production number even though the show cries out for one. Instead of feeling like we're experiencing their actual performance, it feels like we got mostly celluloid snatches. And the crucial climax of the piece dissolves into preachiness.
To put all of this more simply: the show has to stake its own claim, away from the movie (which was not shabbily written; the writing team included Marshall Brickman). If it does so, "For the Boys" would make a terrific musical. And it feels like many of the people involved at Marriott, especially the terrific Gulan, are well-suited for the job. The consistently stellar supporting players include Michael Aaron Lindner, Summer Naomi Smart, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon (in a nicely self-effacing performance) and Anne Gunn. The terrific Melissa Zaremba holds down many of the dance responsibilities on her own two feet. She could use some help.
Too add what's necessary, though, some things will have to be thrown away. Currently, transitional, "Zelig"-like video montages superimpose the heads of the actors on actual footage from the various wars. It's all very clever and, the first time, entertaining to watch. But these sequences go on forever and, at the end of the day, they pull you from the three-dimensional show. In the theater, video trickery can't substitute for honest theatrical discovery that doesn't require a screen — just a pair of remarkable performers and the generations of young men and women who so badly needed them.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Tickets: $41-$48 at 847-634-0200 or marriotttheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye