Skylight’s ‘Eternity’ Is a Slam Bang Show

But 2013 musical adaptation of 'From Here to Eternity' offers more fireworks than humanity.

By - Apr 15th, 2024 11:08 am
Jamie Mercado and Ian Ward in Skylight Music Theatre's "From Here to Eternity". Photo by Mark Frohna.

Jamie Mercado and Ian Ward in Skylight Music Theatre’s “From Here to Eternity”. Photo by Mark Frohna.

The cream of British musical theater have given their all in adapting a famous American classic set on the eve of the Pearl Harbor invasion, From Here to Eternity, and a new production of it by the Skylight’s Cabot Theatre has been staged by an East Coast director unafraid of the crash and bang of modern technology.

Eternity is probably best known for the 1953 movie starring Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra, but it was a novel in 1951 regarded at the time as a hard-hitting firsthand account about life in the peacetime Army as war hovered. The publishers in that era softened or excised the harsh edges of brothel and gay life among the servicemen.

The musical restores that, while picking items from the basic plot. First done 11 years ago in Britain, the musical mightily seeks to restore the darkness while still treating the soldiers as archetypes of masculine behavior rather than individual breathing humans. It calls for an assembly of vocally and athletically powerful actors to turn calisthenics and rapid-fire choreographic crosscurrents into a visceral juggernaut of movement and group song.

Skylight artistic director Michael Unger again is backing up his aesthetic values and risk-taking with topnotch productions.

Masterful director/choreographer Brett Smock, bringing along some of his favorite crafts colleagues, has tracked this play from its British start and loaded the staging with a squad of performers that seem like a battalion of MPs, sailors, brothel customers and GIs erupting from every doorway. From the pit, imported conductor/keyboardist Logan Medland orchestrates a thunderous mix of stage effects, two guitars, a bass and a percussionist.

Smock uses Jeffrey Kmiec’s proscenium set to first-class effect, making a dark backdrop turn into a dripping seascape or living mugshots. He combines a variety of scrim projected effects, even allowing the play to close in screaming noise and images fighting against chorales. The stage explodes into a parade of “The Boys of ‘41,’” the powerful closing number that morphs into a list of the 1,177 officers and crewmen who died on the USS Arizona December 7, 1941.

A talented composer, Stuart Brayson, has combined the big Broadway chorus flourish, the elongated climaxes of modern pop music and the lonelier edges of blues and jazz to create the aura of our times, a sound overlay that favors the male voices and dominates the episodic events.

Sir Tim Rice, the eminent lyricist famous for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John, has sought to dramatize wedges of words to match Brayson’s musical crescendos, but he has not solved, as shows like South Pacific once did, the problem of how to make poetry out of the limited vocabulary of World War II GIs. Several of the ballad climaxes such as “More to Life” and “At Ease” falter on strings of moon-June-spoon reactive rhymes.

An exception is a winning light-hearted duet by the leads – Ian Ward as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt and Jamie Mercado as prostitute Lorene. The teasing nature of “Love Me Forever Today” makes the June-spoon rhyming pattern fit.

Ward, playing the hardcase bugler who refuses to box, displays a strength of manner and voice throughout in a performance we tend to read deeper things into than the quick-glance book allows. He and another strong performer, Matt Faucher as Sgt. Milt Warden, have bluesy fun opening Act Two with “Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues.”

The women are important in the story and given musical highlights, but while Mercado as the prostitute and willowy Kaitlyn Davidson (also the dance captain) as the captain’s straying wife sing nicely, the book doesn’t allow much character development. The ballads are forgettable. Way out of her acting and singing comfort zone is Michelle Liu Coughlin in the expanded part of the brothel madame.

As the brash, endearing and annoying Maggio, Gianni Palmarini achieves needed laughter at his obvious intrusions, but then overplays and over-sings his victimhood finales.

The weakness of the book has been smartly covered up with the dexterity of the entrances and exits. The book even borrows a plot device from another WWII classic play, A Soldier’s Story, by having a fine Milwaukee actor Jonathan Wainwright pretend to be a colonel conducting a mock trial investigating the tangled plot and killings.

Wainwright and another familiar local, Neil Brookshire as the hateful captain, dutifully carry much of the exposition, but the interrogation device always feels like a device. It gets in the way of the larger message signaled in Rudyard Kipling’s original words adapted for the Whippenpoof song (“Gentlemen rankers off on a spree. Doomed from here to eternity”). A ranker is an enlisted man proficient enough to be an officer.

The production is admirable in how it engages us, but admiration is not the same as emotional involvement. We never escape the feeling that first class work is being expended on a shaky musical theater vehicle.

At two and a half hours including intermission, From Here to Eternity runs through May 5 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets online at or call the Skylight Theatre box office at 414-291-7800.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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One thought on “Theater: Skylight’s ‘Eternity’ Is a Slam Bang Show”

  1. Jmj1624 says:

    Hey Mr. Noth! I WAS emotionally involved.

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