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From Here to Eternity: The Musical
Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee
By John Olson

Also see John's feature From London to Milwaukee: The Journey of From Here to Eternity: The Musical, Christine's reviews of Hamlet and Guys and Dolls, and Karen's review of The Music Man

Ian Ward and company
Photo by Mark Frohna
A still of swimsuit-clad Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing in the surf became an icon for not only the 1953 Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity film but is arguably one of the most prominent icons of movies generally. And a newly revised musical version of From Here to Eternity by Sir Tim Rice, lyricist of many of the most successful musicals of the past 50 years, along with composer Stuart Brayson, and bookwriters Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, demands that attention must be paid to a musicalization of one of the great World War II stories.

This adaptation of James Jones' novel was first produced on London's West End in 2014. It has been further developed in productions in the U.S. and U.K. since then by director/choreographer Brett Smock, who has brought this latest version to Milwaukee's venerable Skylight Music Theatre, where it opened on April 12. The response to the original 2014 London production was mixed, but Smock (who did not direct it, but happened to see that production) believed in its potential and has worked with the same writing team to further develop it ever since. Their belief in the project is justified. This current version, with a handsome staging and a skilled cast, including many New York-based and Equity performers, is a moving tribute to the fighting men of the Second World War that provides additional material that was excised from the novel and its 1951 film adaptation.

That iconic image of Kerr and Lancaster might lead audiences to expect an erotic romance set in an exotic locale. These qualities are present in this musical but are secondary to a focus on the infantrymen and their relationships to their officers. In that sense, From Here to Eternity: The Musical is a far cry from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, which portrayed the officers and generals as mostly wise and noble. In contrast, this musical draws from the novel's more cynical view of military leadership, even as it generally follows the contours of the film's plot in condensing the 850-page novel by James Jones into a two and a half hour musical.

The story, for those who don't know it, is set on an army base on Oahu just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Ian Ward), an exceptional bugler and boxer, has been transferred to Company G of the Schofield Barracks because the company Captain Dana Holmes (Neil Brookshire) wants a winning boxing team. Prewitt no longer wants to box because he accidentally blinded a sparring partner. Captain Holmes attempts to persuade him to return to the sport through a variety of increasingly harsh harassments, much of it with the help of the sadistic Sgt. Judson (Jared Brandt Hoover). The sympathetic First Sargeant Milt Warden (Matt Faucher) softens Prewitt's treatment as much as he can without insubordination to Holmes. Warden is hiding his own insubordination of a more serious type–he's carrying on an affair with Holmes' unhappy wife Karen (Kaitlyn Davidson). Prewitt also has an ally in the smart-ass Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Gianni Palmarini), who introduces him to the local brothel run by Mrs. Kipfer (Michelle Liu Coughlin). There, Prewitt falls for one of the girls, Lorene (Jamie Mercado).

The Cast
Photo by Mark Frohna
With eight major characters to introduce and the story's primary conflict of Prewitt's refusal to box to set up, the first act has a lot of work to do. The book handles this efficiently and establishes some tension through a framing device that reveals up front that Judson and Maggio have been killed under mysterious circumstances. The story is then told in flashbacks as a senior officer, Colonel Delbert (Jonathan Wainwright), conducts an inquest into the two deaths. We also learn at this point that Prewitt has gone AWOL and may be involved in the deaths. This initial tension is somewhat undercut in the first act by a lighter tone in the flashback scenes and the several upbeat songs. Prewitt's hazing seems bearable, Karen and Milt's affair appears to be not yet in serious jeopardy of being discovered, and Maggio's frequently disrespectful behavior is mostly tolerated. A more nuanced and threatening performance by Brookshire as Holmes might have raised the stakes. Holmes is the true villain in the story, after all. And maybe an even more hateful characterization of Judson in the first act might have heightened the tension.

Similarly, some of the songs in the first act, with appealing and catchy melodies and Tim Rice's typically clever yet unostentatious lyrics, work against establishing the darker tone that the story demands. Some of the first act's key songs are pleasant in a classic showtune way. The opening number ("G Company Blues") is sung and danced in synchronized movements (appropriate, given that soldiers drill in unison and that conformity is required among the infantry), but it feels a bit too Broadway for this viewer. There's another ensemble number later in the first act, a title song in which the soldiers sing about their daily routine and the hardships of the enlisted man's life, that might have benefitted from a grittier approach. A love song for Prewitt and Lorene ("Love Me Forever Today") has a lyric by Rice that is as good as any of his hits–suggesting the lovers know they have an uncertain future, but the optimistic melody, catchy as it is, lacks a similar bittersweet knowledge.

There are exceptions to these cheerier show tunes. The edgiest song of the first act, Mrs. Kipfer's "I Know What You Come For," has a gritty feel and establishes one of the ways in which this musical is more faithful to the novel than was the film. The "establishment" Mrs. Kipfer runs is a brothel rather than a "social club," as it was depicted the film, and we get suitably edgy performances from Coughlin and Mercado as its proprietor and one of its "working girls." There's also an introspective solo ("At Ease") in which Warden expresses his discomfort at his relationship with Karen and his responsibilities in punishing Prewitt. Matt Faucher brings an organic performance and beautiful baritone to the role of this romantic hero.

In the second act, however, the threads all come together and stakes become very clear. After the act opens with a charming duet for Prewitt and Warden ("Ain't Where I Wanna Be Blues"), the songs are mostly solos conveying the pain of the characters. Lorene has a song in which she tries to say goodbye to Hewitt ("Run Along Joe") and Ward nails the powerful "Fight the Fight." Karen comes to terms with her failed marriage in "I'll Remember the Day."

In a significant development cut from the original novel and omitted from the film, Maggio shows Prewitt a way to make the money he needs to pay for visits to Lorene–by selling his sexual services to customers of a Honolulu gay bar. The discovery of Maggio's involvement at the bar and Prewitt's continued refusal to box lead to intolerable abuses of the two, with tragic consequences for both. Gianni Palmarini, who has already given Maggio an impressive comic performance in the first act, breaks down in a solo ("I Love the Army") that is a dramatic showstopper and establishes Palmarini as one of the standouts among this strong cast.

By late in the second act, through these effective musical soliloquies, we've seen the anguish of the leading characters and at this point are engaged in their stories. And though I generally found the solos and duets more effective in telling the story than the group numbers, the ensemble's "The Boys of '41," makes clear that the real heroes of this story and that war are the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers that made the greatest sacrifices through their fighting. The brass have been shown as ambitious and concerned about their careers even at the expense of their men. We see how the military has no room for individuality among its troops. There's no place for someone like Prewitt to stay true to his morals, or for someone like Maggio to follow his individual take on morality. The Army's enforced conformity is subtly suggested in the show's brilliant unit set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec–rows of identical bunk beds are hung along walls upstage and the wings, reflecting the identical training and living conditions experiences by the thousands of enlisted men.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is frighteningly communicated through lighting and sound effects by Jose Santiago and Kevin Heard, respectively, and by Smock's staging of the chaos among the soldiers during the attack and in its aftermath. The depth of emotions of the individual stories and tragic endings for so many of the characters give this musical version of From Here to Eternity an operatic intensity, more akin to a Miss Saigon than a South Pacific.

With a final reprise of "The Boys of '41," we see the soldiers leave Hawaii and the tranquility of pre-attack Honolulu for the war they had hoped to avoid, including some of its most brutal fighting in the battle of Guadalcanal. The ambitions of a career officer like Holmes are trivial compared to the sacrifices of the fighting men. In this uncompromising ending, indicting the military brass so severely, From Here to Eternity can be compared to a Parade. We know that the happy ending, if there can be said to be one, will be four years away and earned with much bloodshed.

From Here to Eternity: The Musical runs through May 5, 2024, at Skylight Music Theatre, Cabot Theatre of Milwaukee Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee WI. For tickets and information, please visit, call 414-291-7800, or visit the box office.