I have suddenly found myself reviewing the new musical Unknown Solider, in the midst of its closure due to the coronavirus crisis.
Any criticism now comes across a bit like showing up at a funeral and pointing out a double-chin on the deceased. I’m not saying I have done this, but as an Italian-American, I have experienced colorful funerals where the traditional, solemn rules hardly seem to apply.
My own grandmother’s funeral started out with hushed, loving tones and by the end the gloves were off and all sanitized memories were replaced with something closer to the truth. I adored her, but also, she was a pain-in-the-ass. Lightning struck the funeral home when someone spoke her true age, too. If someone is going to come back to haunt me, it will be her.
As I think about it, maybe this funeral home conversation isn’t at all out of character for this musical which is about a woman, Ellen (Margot Seibert), trying to understand her dead, difficult grandmother, Lucy (Estelle Parsons) who raised her. Ellen enlists the assistance of a Cornell University librarian, Andrew (Erik Lochtefeld), to help her figure out who the World War I unknown soldier is in a photo with her grandmother. The musical then flashes between time—backwards and forwards—as the research unfolds and the people, past and present, reveal themselves.
Unknown Solider is odd. It is romantic and anti-romantic, at the same time. It deals in memory, remembrance, legacy, and the mess of inheritance–genes, boxes of detritus, personality, and ghosts. As Ellen tries to learn the mysteries of her grandmother’s past, her own secrets and dreams come out.
While that is not a particularly “out there” topic for musical theater, the method of storytelling here is a bit harder to read than your regular show. This musical hovers in a soft, feathery nether-space of not knowing, wondering, and imagining, only to crash into reality from time to time. The dissonance is intentional, but the production is also fighting itself, in less helpful ways.
I liked some of this rebellious spirit, but this production has not quite found the right balance to make all these parts work together.
This is one of the last pieces by the late composer and lyricist Michael Friedman, created in partnership with book writer and lyricist Daniel Goldstein.
At times, Michael Friedman’s score can soar, making us forget we will crash land here and there. The lyrics can be funny and snide, then sweet and gentle. It can be quite dizzying and challenging like any good Friedman musical, but the storytelling needs greater clarification through visuals to smooth over some of the turbulence. Or it needs to ramp up the noise. Instead, it drifts in a non-specific middle ground.
Director Trip Cullman crafts the memories and images of the past with such a gauzy eye. Images of clouds, trees, Grand Central Terminal, and storms are projected over three walls. Some of the airiness to the scenes from the past might be caused by what the characters wish they were and not what they actually were. Whether they are supposed to be projected fantasies or factual is not always clear. The musical wants us to enjoy this liminal space of not knowing, but it can only sustain that so long before we forget why we’re here.
Throw in some questions of mental health that go largely unexplored and things get really messy too.
All that said, Margo Seibert sings so beautifully and her self-destructive Ellen is funny, lively, and real. Lochtefeld is well cast as a man filled with pent up longing, but sometimes his songs exist just out of his vocal range. The present day characters are so fucked-up and human. The dreamy characters from the past are sketches and dull. We somehow spend too much time in the past and not enough with the delightful fuck-ups.
The production also begins in a library archive full of boxes, presumably where Andrew works. Sometimes I think we’re all trapped in the dusty basements of our own decisions, maybe getting a little lost in the records of the past, but as the musical touches on those issues I don’t know if the visual metaphor ever clicks as well as it should. Particularly as other librarians wander these stacks and move things around.
I might have a lot of mental baggage from the past, but I never suspected I also had archival librarians helping me tidy up. If so, they could do a better job of organizing.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak and the shutdown of Off-Broadway, this production has unfortunately ceased its performances at the time of publication.