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The Lieutenant

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 11, 2023

Dan Domenech (center) and Cast
Photo by Rider Foster
Indulge us for a moment, please, we collectors of cast albums and mavens of Tony Awards trivia. In 1975, a lot of Jerry Herman fans were very upset when his favorite among his scores, Mack and Mabel, didn't get a Tony nomination, while the score for a nine-performance rock opera by unknowns, The Lieutenant, did. The Lieutenant has since largely vanished, while Mack and Mabel is very much alive. But leave it to James Morgan and his Musicals in Mufti to give The Lieutenant a second look, 48 years later. The sung-through work, by Chuck Strand, Gene Curty, and Nitra McAuliffe (known at the time as Nitra Scharfman), reveals itself to be at times trenchant and well-wrought–but also, curiously, given its incendiary subject matter, often passive, and even uninvolving.

It's the story of a moment in U.S. history many would probably rather forget, the 1968 My Lai massacre. Sent out on a mission against the Viet Cong, Army Lieutenant William Calley, not finding any, instead ordered the slaughter of hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians. He was charged by Army prosecutors with premeditated murder and, despite an I-was-only-following-orders defense, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence was quickly reduced, and he was paroled not long after. He just turned 80.

Sound like rock opera material? Strand, Curty, and McAuliffe took an approach not unlike the then-popular Jesus Christ Superstar, giving Calley (Anthony Festa, though the script just refers to him as Lieutenant) center stage and plenty of time to sing about why he joined the Army and why he did what he did. There really aren't any other major characters. Three generals (William Thomas Evans, Noah Christopher Ruebeck, and A.D. Weaver) indulge in trios about recruitment and their eagerness to pin the blame on the lieutenant, but there's no individuality whatever to their characters; any line could be assigned to any one of them. Two villagers, backed by Peter Brucker and Matthew Gurren's wrenching projections of South Vietnamese, have a wordless reverie just before the assault. A chaplain (Weaver) offers a plaintive Lord's Prayer. A GI (Cal Mitchell) vows to put the brass wise about the attack. Congresspeople debate whom to blame and what the consequences would be. And so on.

It should be devastating. "It has giant emotion," Bill Castellino, the director-choreographer (there's little choreography to speak of), said at the talkback. But the emotion is mostly kept oddly in check; much of The Lieutenant emerges as reportage. Events come and go, but they don't build. Some of this surely has to do with the lyrics, which rhyme inexactly when they even bother to try. But beyond that, in trying to cram the whole sorry story into 75 minutes, Strand, Curty, and McAuliffe relay more fact than feeling.

It does catch fire in places, most notably in the ardent statements of the attorneys for the prosecution (Travis Kent) and defense (Dan Domenech). Meantime, the Lieutenant, on the stand, sings, at least four times, "I was praised for doing a good job/ And now of all my honor I've been robbed." If you're going to invert speech into something unnatural to get to the rhyme, it should at least be a perfect rhyme.

Melody wasn't really the objective of this genre, but the authors do serve up a catchy "Join the Army" counterpoint for the lieutenant and a recruiting sergeant (Chris Cardozo). The rest is fairly standard 1970s rock opera, much of it way up or above the staff, shouting sentiments like "Kill, we're gonna teach you to kill," and supported by some impressive guitar riffing. There's not a weak voice onstage, and the five-piece orchestra, conducted and arranged (the Broadway version was so impoverished, the band only had lead sheets) by Eric Svejcar, plays flawlessly.

This Mufti is more mufti than usual. The set consists of folding chairs, and the actors wear black, period. One can appreciate The Lieutenant as an artifact of its troubled time and sympathize with the dreadful luck it faced: Reviewed favorably by many (including a rave by Clive Barnes, an almost certain sign of mediocrity), it closed early due to undercapitalization, and two days later the Tony nominations came out. The York audience gave this performance a standing ovation, which the actors probably deserved, however lacking the material may be in narrative buildup and point of view. You really want to relive the horror and shame that were My Lai, and the tragedy and waste that constituted the Vietnam War? Here's your chance.

The Lieutenant
Through September 17, 2023
York Theatre Company
St. John Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th Street, New York NY
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