At Ogunquit, a promising, powerful ‘Eternity’

Lorene (Jenna Nicole Schoen) and the cast of “From Here to Eternity.” Photo: Julia Russell

OGUNQUIT, Maine – In the restless days before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, members of G Company, based in Schofield Barracks on Oahu in Hawaii are at war with each other.

Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Derek Carley), a bugler, boxer and soldier, is a very restless soul as he struggles to find his place in a peacetime Army. “A soldier ain’t a soldier until there’s an enemy to fight” is his mantra.

“From Here to Eternity,” subtitled “A New Musical,” is based on James Jones’ epochal novel that was made into an Oscar-winning 1953 movie starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr.

It is having its second North American production at the Ogunquit Playhouse through Oct. 29 and is infused with royal blood, with celebrated lyricist Sir Tim Rice collaborating with Stuart Brayson on the score.

The book of the musical by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes hews more closely to the book than the movie was able to do at a time when censorship ran rampant, and here the violence and brutality is full bore.

Jenna Nicole Schoen, Derek Carley, Kevin Aichele and Robyn Hurder in “From Here to Eternity.” Photo: Julia Russell

James Jones’ daughter Kaylie Jones noted in the program that many of those enlisting in the peacetime Army in 1939 and 1940 were fleeing the aftermath of the Great Depression and were “hardened, poor, struggling boys” from “the lowest rungs of American society.”

The soldiers of G Company know something’s coming, but they don’t know where or when, and meanwhile they’re itching to fight – even if it’s with each other. (“ G Company Blues”)

Sgt. Milt Warden (Kevin Aichele ), a longtime non-commissioned officer who has all but abandoned his dream of becoming an officer, is running G Company in the absence of commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Bradley Dean), who isn’t much of a leader, spending most of his time at the officers’ club and seeking female companionship.

Private Prewitt transfers into G Company as a champion boxer who can make Captain Holmes’ dreams of a regimental boxing championship – and a promotion to major — come true.

But Prewitt – after a horrific accident in the ring – has decided not to box anymore and Holmes has asked Warden to keep Prewitt under his thumb. And while Warden is doing that, he is also making time with Maine native Robyn Hunter as Karen Holmes, trapped in a loveless, barren marriage with her philandering officer husband, and eager to find love and a new start wherever she can.

“Eternity” features a bravura performance by Michael Tacconi as Private Angelo Maggio, perpetually inhabiting the G Company doghouse while playing the angles to make money, including not above rousting gays who are happy to pay to keep the company of handsome young GI’s.

The Army that Jones detailed in his book is not an enlightened one. Maggio is routinely referred to as “dago” and “wop” and ultimately falls victim to Sgt. “Fatso” Judson (Reed Campbell), the sadistic director of the stockade. It is a world where gay soldiers are at risk of being blackmailed or being outed and discharged.

That is the dilemma facing Jason Michael Evans as Private Isaac Bloom, finding it harder and harder each day to live a lie.

Prewitt, meanwhile finds refuge with Lorene (Jenna Nicole Schoen), a resident of the pleasure palace run by Mrs. Kipfer (Jodi Kimura).

This is the musical’s second production in North America, after a run in upstate New York a year ago. Ogunquit is becoming a haven for musicals that are new or still in their development stage, such as last season’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With a large subscriber base and a reputation for quality, the theater can produce titles its audience might not be familiar with but are willing to explore.

Give Ogunquit credit for sparing no expense in staging this show. Stanley A. Mayer’s set design evokes a tropical paradise with its waving palms but is utilitarian enough to become G Company barracks, company offices, and Mrs. Kipfer’s house of ill repute.

The lighting by Richard Latta works in concert with the set, the sound design by Kevin Heard that is frighteningly effective when the Japanese finally invade, and projection designs by Christopher Ash that complement and enhance what’s happening onstage, including a final roll call of the dead at Pearl Harbor.

Director/choreographer Brett Smock’s pacing is fine and while this isn’t what you’d call a dance show or a dance musical – how many numbers of dancing G.I.’s do you really want to see – the production numbers are effectively staged and choreographed

There are worthy moments in the Rice-Brayson score. Three of the best numbers are bluesy: “G Company Blues,” “At Ease,” beautifully performed by Aichele as Warden, and “Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues” performed by Aichele as Warden and Carley as Prewitt.

“I Love the Army,” a bitterly ironic tome sung by the two fallen anti-heroes, Maggio and Bloom, is another highlight and Schoen as Lorene does a lovely job with “Run Along, Joe,” urging Prewitt to move on and forget her.

The question for all involved is what comes next. More out-of-town productions? Broadway wants all the “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and there are times when “From Here to Eternity” still has the feel of a powerful but unfinished product.

Given that, it is very much worth both your time and money because of the performances and the fabulous production values. If it had that one song – or perhaps those two songs – that would reverberate with the audience and stay with them long after the performance, I’d like its chances of making that next step.

The Ogunquit Playhouse production of “From Here to Eternity, A New Musical.” Based on the novel by James Jones. Music by Sir Tim Rice and Stuart Brayson. Book by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes. Creative direction, direction and choreography by Brett Smock. At the Ogunquit Playhouse through Oct. 29.