“One Red Flower,” Paris Barclay’s paean to American soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, gets high marks for sincerity. But this earnest musical, derived from actual letters from GIs, is also an unabashed downer.
TV director Barclay (“NYPD Blue,” “The West Wing” and “ER) wrote the music and adapted the book and lyrics. The project, receiving its premiere at the Signature Theater, represents a personal campaign that has taken Barclay 18 years and 24 drafts to complete. He has given voice to letters written to and from more than 100 soldiers; they were collected for the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial and edited by Bernard Edelman for the book, “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam.”
Barclay’s cast of six soldiers and one worried mother expresses universal thoughts about life at the front and at home. The letters are embellished by heartfelt songs of camaraderie, misery, loneliness and protest.
Signature’s Eric Schaeffer directs with great sensitivity to the material, and to the strong emotions that the war has provoked.
The show begins in idealistic fashion as the gung-ho members of a platoon gather their patriotic thoughts. In song, they celebrate the benefits of free mail and the wonders that await them. But the mood swiftly changes as reality sets in: the hardships of war, death from friendly fire and constant assault from an invisible and ubiquitous foe.
“I don’t understand this war,” bellows one frustrated soldier, expressing the opinion of a generation. It is sobering stuff indeed, hardly the usual grist for a musical. And although it could be considered timely, what with another controversial conflict under way, there is nothing really new here in a genre has been thoroughly explored already.
The production also is encumbered by theatrical limitations posed by its confining format. Since the lion’s share of dialogue is a recitation of correspondence (much of it predictable), there is relatively little interaction among performers. Show is predominantly a collection of soliloquies interspersed with musical numbers from members of the (quickly dwindling) company. As a result, the characters remain distant, minimally sketched and emotionally out of reach.
An even cast grapples gamely with the situation, headed by Stephen Gregory Smith as the production’s central character, SP4 Billy Bridges, a congenial company clerk who longs to get in on the action. Signature regular Florence Lacey plays his mother.
Other assets include Barclay’s tuneful music sung to 1970s rock beats. Among them are two tender melodies, “Lament” and “My Own Dream,” the bouncy “Free” and the intriguing title song.
The darkness of the hour is vividly depicted by Chris Lee’s subdued lighting and Schaeffer’s dour staging, typified by grieving soldiers hurling helmets in disgust.
Other effective touches include Schaeffer’s seat-rattling helicopter arrival to open the show, Eric Grims’ minimalist but eye-catching set and Michael Clark’s projections, which include a dramatic closing tableau of the names etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just a few miles away.