Thursday, November 9, 2023

Private Jones - Norma Terris Theatre

The musical, Private Jones, which finished its workshop production earlier this month at the Norma Terris Theater (part of the Goodspeed Opera House group of theaters), is a unique show with an interesting plotline.  The main character, Gomer Jones, is deaf.  A farmer in civilian life, he becomes an accomplished sniper during WWI.  The show traces his journey from young, na├»ve country bumpkin to hardened soldier during the prolonged trench warfare of The Big War.  Marshall Pailet, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and even directs, has crafted a musical that, at times, packs an emotional wallop, especially when certain characters are killed.

Johnny Link and the cast of Goodspeed's Private Jones. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


As Director, he has incorporated a number of techniques – blackouts, slow motion movement, and puppetry – to tell the story and move the action swiftly along.   He has skillfully integrated sign language and minimal subtitles to give audiences an understanding of the experiences and conflicts from Jones’ vantage point.  Sound effects – especially the cocking and firing of a rifle - are nimbly utilized to heighten the audience’s auditory faculties. 


The book of the show, suggested by a true story, is well-fashioned and provides a significant amount of drama and tension as the story unfolds.  It can occasionally appear melodramatic as it follows Jones as he hones his shooting prowess at a young age, through his attempts at enlisting – finally succeeding – to his engagements on the battlefield.   Along the way, he befriends a helpful nurse (Gwenolyn) who’s brother happens to be deaf; a fellow enlistee (King), crude talking and a braggard, he eventually befriends; and a swaggering soldier (Edmund) who becomes his main antagonist.  There’s also a creepy, pathetic looking mongrel (represented as a puppet) that plays an integral part in the musical.

The cast of Goodspeed's Private Jones. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Pailet is able to bring a number of themes into the production.  Front and center is the plight, insensitivity and discrimination of individuals who are deaf.  The senseless and destructive nature of war looms over most of the show.  There is, however, hope and resilience even with all the death and anguish swirling around production.


The production is greatly enhanced by Christopher and Justin Swader’s minimalistic set design of moveable crates.  At times, their configuration is highly effective such as the depiction of isolating trench warfare.  Jen Schriever’s varied Lighting Designs helps intensify the action of scenes and Jay Hilton’s Sound Design can be haunting.  


Marshall Pailet’s score for Private Jones is more serviceable to the show, with no distinctive numbers  that resonate after leaving the theater.  They do a fine job in this endeavor.  The songs work well in helping to move the production forward and clarifying various encounters and conflicts.


Johnny Link and David Aron Damane. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The cast, led by Johnny Link as Gomer Jones, is first-rate.  Link delivers a superb performance, handily shifting from a budding innocent lad to a still youth, but hardened soul. He handles the deafness of his character with proficiency and aplomb.  Claire Neumann gives King a raucous, bawdy persona that, as written, is slightly over-the-top.  Still, the actress becomes an audience favorite as the character of King tightly bonds with Jones.  Vincent Kempski’s portrayal of Edmund is full of bravado, even though his intentions are somewhat questionable.  Leanne Antonio brings a refreshing no-nonsense approach to the role of Gwenolyn.  The actress also has a beautiful singing voice.  David Aron Damane, playing a number of characters – Gomer’s Father, a Drill Sergeant and a Major – is able to convey forcefulness, intelligence, and even humor during his appearances in each role. 


A few thoughts as Private Jones readies for its next engagement at the esteemed Signature Theatre company in Arlington, VA.  Pailet might want to reexamine the almost non-stop, profanity-laden dialogue of the character of King, Jones’ comrade-in-arms.  The constant swearing and crude retorts could be off-putting.  Sometimes less is more.  In addition, the character of Edmund appears rather cavalier as he strolls through the trenches, giving new arrivals his take on what will happen and how to survive.  At times, even though scenes of warfare are brutally honest, he seems to be on his way to high tea.  Near the end of the show, audiences are led to believe one final raid is due to the war about to end…but it isn’t.


Private Jones, a musical one hopes continues to develop as it reaches for a broader audience.

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