Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Also see Zander's recent review of Sunset Boulevard and Fred's review of First Lady of Song: Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald
During the first world war, Welsh soldiers struggled to fend off their enemy encroaching from Germany. Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader utilize wood, including floor-to-ceiling posts and a variety of crate-like boxes which actors move repeatedly. Guns, too, are wooden. The performers as well as set pieces are oftentimes in motion, with actors positioning them according to various musical numbers and situations.
Gomer Jones (Johnny Link) tells his story, which began when, as a boy, he contracted meningitis and he now cannot hear. Nevertheless, he enlists in the army and must convince skeptics that he is not deaf.
Marshall Pailet wrote and directed this production while Alexandria Wailes serves as director of artistic sign language for the show, based upon an actual Private Jones. The cast includes hearing, hard-of-hearing, and deaf actors. Myrna Conn provides precise music direction as she plays keyboard and conducts three other instrumentalists.
The talented Johnny Link is persuasive as he plays Jones and tells much of the story from his perspective. The actor is hard of hearing and sings exceptionally well, with great clarity. Link combines with David Aron Damane, playing the Father, on the show's initial number, "Snuff Out All the Noise." Damane has appeared in productions of Porgy and Bess, Show Boat, and Tommy, all of which require vocal dexterity. The actor brings deep, operatic tone and presence to all of his roles at the Terris; he also plays the drill sergeant and the major.
Within the strong ensemble group, a few actors deserve special mention. Claire Neumann, as King, Leanne Antonio, playing Gwenolyn, and Vincent Kempski, cast as Edmund, shine. One number follows another through the five scenes of this two-act play. It begins in spirited fashion as the company members combine voices on the first three numbers. The production does bog down a bit on "The Western Front" component, which concludes just before intermission. The second act, however, is charged with spirit from the outset as everyone delivers with zest on "Don't Go Talkin' to the Sniper."
The subtext for Private Jones does, at a certain point, permeate through music, talk, and dextrous movement (thanks to Misha Shields's choreography). The theme of this presentation revolves around the violence and ensuing death, which are casualties of wartime. Gomer's aspiration was to become a marksman, a soldier who could find and hit a target from quite a distance away. There's often noise filling the theater, but a telling line that one character delivers toward the muted end of the first act says a great deal: "I thought there'd be more noise in the silence."
Private Jones, produced in association with Signature Theatre and by special arrangement with HUGO SIX, LLC, is delectably imaginative. Early on, umbrellas snapping indicate birds with wings flapping. Nicholas Mahon has devises one particular puppet which becomes pivotal (no spoiler here). When someone pulls the trigger on a wooden rifle the accompanying sound is not the familiar crack of a gun shot. It is, instead, creative, hands-on noise that accompanies.
Johnny Link, seen Off-Broadway, on national tour, and on Apple TV's "Dear Edward," portrays a sensitive if driven Gomer Jones. The actor plays someone whose character arc transforms, and Link's disciplined turn is incisive. The supporting personnel, too, are versatile as they swing from one transformative moment to the next.
Marshall Pailet wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show more than three years ago, but its actualization was slowed during the COVID pandemic period. This presentation is complicated, unusual theatre which brings together production elements and thoughtful messaging through music. Without both skilled actors and a splendid creative team, such a high caliber show would not be possible.
Private Jones runs through November 5, 2023, at Goodspeed Musicals, Terris Theatre, 33 N Main St., Chester CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-873-8668 or visit Goodspeed.org.