We have great theater all around us in New York City, and you don’t always need to travel across the river to see it. Oh What A Lovely War is coming to Main Street Theater & Dance Alliance’s (MSTDA) Howe Theater on March 29, and it promises to be a moving and thought provoking night of intense theater. The production evolved out of MSTDA’s adult musical theater class. Performed by both seasoned actors as well as those newer to the stage, this riveting production will not disappoint.
First developed in London in 1963 by longtime Theater Workshop director Joan Littlewood and her ensemble, Oh What A Lovely War is a satire about World War I, and a darkly comic commentary about war. Presented in a minimalist style, with no set beyond the black box theater itself, the story of the young doe-eyed men going off to become heroes is soon shattered by the grim realities of trench warfare.
Directed by Jacqueline Lucid-Cusick, the musical director is Paul L. Johnson, the choreographer is Joan Marie (Lucid’s daughter), and the assistant director is Chana Meltzer. Jill Clough, Eric B. Cohen, Russ Cusick (Lucid’s husband), Deborah Drucker, Kimbirdlee Fadner, Louis Ladehoff, Mae Roney, Amanda Sadlier, Andrea Sievert, Brenna Stein, Jonathan Stein and Julian Stein star. “I am so proud of this company jumping in fearlessly to bring to life a period in history from over 100 years ago, a period with themes that are eerily resonant today,” says Lucid-Cusick. “I am so excited to present this piece.”
Amanda Sadlier, at dress rehearsal for Oh What a Lovely War
Presented as a play within a play, human marionettes perform multiple roles and assume interchanging genders. The sometimes comical and deadpan tone of the actors is counterpointed by stark black and white images projected on the wall. Images of soldiers in the front lines, dead bodies in the trenches, and text scrolling facts depict the brutally staggering truths of massive casualties and lives destroyed. For example, during a silly tongue-twisting round that goes “Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers” somber messages like “The average length of time a machine gunner under attack survived was under 4 minutes” scroll in the background.
The audience member may sometimes find themselves feeling punched in the stomach and laughing at the same time–but it’s a laughter tinged in sardonic bitterness.
This past Saturday afternoon the cast and crew spent the better part of the day reviewing details and doing a run-through. Jackie Lucid-Cusick sat at a table directly in front of the front row with two young stage managers, calmly giving directions when needed. With less than two weeks to go before opening night, the show, which they’ve been working on for months, seems ready for production. The entire cast is donned in striking white satin marionette suits, with oversized black pom pom buttons and pointed hats. Their characters are conveyed through their voices and movements and hat changes… when soldiers digging trenches become wives surveying a public notice listing the names of the dead, their heads are wrapped in scarves.
The show is impeccably choreographed by Lucid-Cusick’s daughter, Joan Marie, and moves seamlessly from scene to scene. Lively and sometimes mournful and sometimes haltingly arresting song and dance numbers add to the uncomfortably disjointed feeling of life rubbing against death.
Explaining the genesis of the play itself, Lucid-Cusick says, “ This was a musical conceived by a scrappy band of British players back in 1963 under the direction of Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop company. The UK was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Great War at the time. Littlewood and her actors had heard a BBC concert of music hall tunes that were popular during the war. Apparently the operatic production struck a chord with her actors, who said 'those songs wouldn't sound like that in the trenches.' So that's when the seed of a show came to be. She sent her actors out to research and collect stories of the war. It would be a show where they could present those same songs, counterpointed by scenes of life on the battlefield and on the homefront.”
Cast rehearses in their Pierrot costumes for Oh What a Lovely War
The Pierrot costumes, a stock character of pantomime and commedia dell'arte whose origins are in the late seventeenth-century Italian troupe of players performing in Paris, were added because Littlewood hated military uniforms and grew up going to the British seaside watching Pierrot troupes perform. “So it was decided that this show would be a Pierrot show. All the actors would be in full black and white Pierrot costumes for the duration of the performance while telling the story and singing the songs of the Great War,” said Lucid-Cusick
“Joan Littlewood's pioneering 1963 musical about the first world war not only changed attitudes towards the conflict, it remade British theatre,” wrote the The Guardian in 2014 about the play, “It was active in demolishing the gap between stage and auditorium, promoted the growth of the musical documentary and encouraged actors to take responsibility for research and development.”
This groundbreaking production moved to the Broadway stage where it was nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1965. The show has enjoyed several Olivier Award-winning revivals, including the most recent London Revival in 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of the Great War.”
Oh What a Lovely War opens on Friday, March 29th at 8pm, with three more performances on Saturday the 30th at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 8pm. Get your tickets here and get them soon, as this show will likely sell out!