There are many lessons one could take from this noble but ultimately unavailing effort to adapt the 1991 USO-saluting film “For the Boys” to the stage, but it ultimately boils down to something very simple and unsurprising: Without major transformation, a film that didn’t work will likely become a musical that doesn’t work.
Adaptor Aaron Thielen, director Marc Robin, and their collaborators at the Marriott Theater outside Chicago — among the largest subscription institutions in the country — deserve sincere kudos for the exceptionally polished professionalism of the show. It looks sharp and moves smoothly, a particular challenge given the in-the-round structure of the house. It also has an excellent cast, and the collection of American song classics representing the ’40s through the ’60s are sung superbly, particularly by the leads Michele Ragusa and Timothy Gulan in the roles played on film by Bette Midler and James Caan. And, admirably, the show has its heart in the right, patriotic place.
But the result remains a tonally confused, lumbering combination of jukebox musical, relationship drama, sweeping history and, maybe somewhere in there, musical comedy, in that there is both music and comedy.
Telling the story of a couple of entertainers, reminiscent of Bob Hope and Martha Raye, who keep teaming up over the decades to bring levity and support to the troops who fought America’s mid-century wars, “For the Boys” boasts songs that are all performed in a presentational style, not intended to provide drama so much as to capture mood. And even then, there’s a feeling of distance to the performance quality that keeps even the musical moments from being engaging — the performers seem to be singing into a nostalgic ether, directed at the photos of troops projected above the stage, rather than making the living audience their target.
That emotional distance means that the show can be amusing without really being funny, and sentimental without being moving. And it doesn’t help that Thielen’s faithfulness to the screenplay means he has a lot of plot that goes only in the most predictable directions.
Part of the problem may well be that 1991 happened to be the year of the first Gulf War, at a time when America had been at peace for quite a while. Since then, the nation has found itself in a series of fierce overseas battles, not to mention a notable homeland attack 10 years ago.
That makes a show about showbiz that begins with WWII and ends with Vietnam feel even more like a relic, almost seeming to ask the question: Remember when war was hell but the entertainment was terrific?Musical Numbers: “Billy-a-Dick,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “GI Jive,” “Stuff Like That There,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Stuff Like That There” (reprise), “I Remember You,” “I Wish You Love,” “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” “What Will Santa Claus Say?,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “America the Beautiful,” “I Thought About You,” “Rag Mop,” “That’s Loyalty,” “I Remember You” (reprise), “Christmas Island,” “Botch-a-Me,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “A Christmas Love Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” “West Point March,” “What a Wonderful World, “I Remember You” (reprise).