'Blueprint Specials': Theater Review

Courtesy of Ryan Jensen
Laura Osnes and Will Swenson in 'Blueprint Specials'
This exuberant theatrical time capsule from World War II will make you want to enlist.
1/11/2017

The enterprising Waterwell theater company resurrects these World War II musicals — originally conceived to be presented by, and performed for, soldiers — on the hangar deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Waterwell theater company couldn’t have found a more appropriate venue for its musical production presented as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. The massive hangar deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum makes it feel that you are the originally intended audience for Blueprint Specials, which has gone unseen since World War II.

The backstory is a fascinating one. Conceived by the Army’s Special Services Division in 1944-45, the “Blueprint Specials” were original musical comedies designed to be staged and performed by soldiers beyond reach of USO tours. Intended to boost morale, they were delivered in the form of complete scripts, scores, orchestrations, scenic and costume designs, as well as instructions on how they could be staged in a variety of locations.

This limited-run production is an amalgamation of the four surviving Blueprint scripts, and their pedigree is impressive indeed. Most of the songs were written by Frank Loesser, who would later achieve musical theater immortality with such classic shows as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The book is principally by Arnold M. Auerbach, who would go on to write for Milton Berle and win an Emmy for The Phil Silvers Show. And the choreography is primarily the work of Jose Limon, a modern-dance pioneer who eventually founded his own company. All three creative principals were serving as U.S. Army privates at the time.

A loose collection of exuberant musical numbers, dance routines and comedy sketches, the show features a main storyline involving the goddess Pallas Athena (Laura Osnes, a Tony nominee for Cinderella and Bonnie and Clyde, and star of the upcoming Broadway musical Bandstand), who impulsively decides to descend from Mt. Olympus and enlist under the name “Mary Brown.” She’s pursued by the god Jupiter (Will Swenson of Hair and Les Miserables), who to his consternation discovers that she’s become smitten with the all-too-human, appropriately named Sad Sack (Quinn Mattfeld).

Although the broad, unsophisticated humor hasn’t aged particularly well, the show is nonetheless great fun, both for its time-capsule qualities and the catchy score featuring such delightful numbers as “Gee, But It’s Great to Be in the Army,” “Why Do They Call a Private a Private,” “First Class Private Mary Brown” and “Classification Blues.” Although the production is being given only a six-performance run, the members of the large ensemble go through their paces in confidently smooth, well-rehearsed fashion under the direction of Tom Ridgely.

Unsurprisingly, veteran performers Osnes and Swenson are terrific. The gorgeous-voiced Osnes is charming as the goddess who finds the army a little more than she bargained for, and Swenson is very funny as the vainglorious Jupiter. Mattfeld practically steals the show with his amusing physical antics, while several members of the Limon Dance Company perform briefly but thrillingly. They’re all accompanied by a big band positioned on the side of the makeshift stage, exuberantly conducted by Sonny Paladino in a red-sequin jacket.  

Watching the show aboard the massive aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 1974 after serving from World War II through the Vietnam War is an uplifting and novel experience. But even more resonant is the fact that the ensemble includes more than a few members of the U.S. military, retired and still serving, who appear in their uniforms or fatigues for the curtain calls. That they blend seamlessly with the stage professionals is a testament to the dedication and hard work that has gone in to this lovingly rendered theatrical artifact.

Venue: Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York
Cast: Mark Banik, James Edward Becton, Kate Berman, Brad Bong, Tislam Bouie, Hugh Cha, Hanna Cheek, Emmanuel Crespo, Taylor Crousore, Jennean Farmer, Jenny Florkowski, Ethan Hardy, Kurt Hellerich, Melissa Rose Hirsch, Curtis Edwin Holland, Rich Hollman, Sandra W. Lee, Quinn Mattfeld, Emily McAleesjergins, Laura Osnes, Malcolm Phillips, Eddie Rodriguez, Nelly Savinon, Robert Soto, Mandy Striph, Will Swenson, Jennifer Thompson, Kevin Townley, Damion J. Williams
Music & lyrics: Frank Loesser
Book: Arnold M. Auerbach
Director-adaptor: Tom Ridgely
Set & costume designer: Andrea Lauer
Lighting designer: Simon Cleveland
Sound designer: Josh Millican

Original choreography: Jose Limon
Choreographers: Patrick McCollum, Colin Connor
Musical arrangements: Sonny Paladino

Presented by Waterwell in association with the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

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