×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Letters From ‘Nam

Technically impeccable and utterly professional in its premiere production, "Letters From 'Nam" nevertheless takes a while to connect on an emotional level with its source material, the deeply moving and disturbing collection of Vietnam War letters edited by Bernard Edelman and published in 1985 as "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam."

With:
Eleanor Bridges - Maureen McGovern
Warrant Officer Billy Bridges - David Burnham
First Lt. Kenneth Rutherford - Dwayne L. Barnes
Sergeant George McDuffy - Levi Kreis
Specialist Fourth Class Rich Nunez - Jeff Mosier
Private First Class Alan Chisholm - Michael Cunio
Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson - Rodney Hicks
Supernumerary - Nathan Atkinson

Technically impeccable and utterly professional in its premiere production, “Letters From ‘Nam” nevertheless takes a while to connect on an emotional level with its source material, the deeply moving and disturbing collection of Vietnam War letters edited by Bernard Edelman and published in 1985 as “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam.”

This is the rare musical that has first-act rather than second-act problems. Act one is all gleaming efficiency, and the emotional impact evoked by the anger, disillusionment and deaths of act two only make the lack of connection in the generic first act more apparent.

The source material is letters written by 18- to 24-year-old Americans without thought of public presentation. They are direct, innocent, uncensored and heartbreaking (some include poems, thereby providing ready-made lyrics). One may well ask whether turning these letters into a musical — with book, lyrics and music by Paris Barclay — adds anything to them. Reading them unadorned may actually be more dramatically and emotionally involving.

Nevertheless, Barclay, a television producer and Emmy Award-winning director (“NYPD Blue”), firmly believes that a dramatic presentation of the letters was necessary, and in spirit, “Letters From ‘Nam” is unabashedly a tribute to the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam and the 58,000 or so who died there. Each performance is dedicated to a soldier who was killed in Vietnam, and at the end Vietnam vets in the audience are applauded.

With a cast of just eight, the musical opens and closes on Memorial Day 2001 with the mother (Maureen McGovern) of one of the soldiers dramatized in the musical speaking to her dead son about her visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In between, it flashes back to the year the six young soldiers in the musical spent in Vietnam, as the mother counts the days to go before her son comes home (he’s killed on the eve of his departure).

The first notes heard from the eight-piece pit band, splendidly directed from the keyboard by Keith Thompson in Harold Wheeler’s evocative orchestrations, sound Vietnamese. They soon segue into the insistent beat of soft rock, as Barclay’s score ranges toward rap and balladry and includes some a cappella harmonizing. The score, including its theme song, “I Don’t Understand This War,” is solidly professional, but more individuality and variety would be welcome. For the most part, Barclay has adapted the book’s letters into dialogue and lyrics with sensitivity and dramatic skill — particularly after he and his otherwise stage-savvy director Ben Levit eschew the surface aspects of mounting a musical and delve in the second act into the material’s human depths.

McGovern clearly believes in her omnipresent role, bringing to it a strong vocal and personal presence. But it’s essentially passive: The six young actors playing the American soldiers have all the action. Something needs to be done to dramatize this role.

All of the young soldiers are played and sung with real skill, though David Burnham as McGovern’s son could perhaps make himself more ingratiating. As their year in Vietnam proceeds, they battle heat, incessant rain (yes, actual drenching rain), disillusionment and then a series of deaths.

One (Michael Cunio) is captured, and we see him incarcerated in a bamboo cage suspended over the audience, being beaten by a Vietcong guard and bound or strung up on small platforms amid the audience. We learn later that after many years imprisoned he did return to the U.S., only to commit suicide. A clerk (Jeff Mosier, who wields a mean guitar) laments that he’s not involved in any action and then becomes the first to be killed. The soldiers played by Dwayne L. Barnes and Levi Kreis are injured or killed. One, the medic played by Rodney Hicks, escapes more or less unscathed.

Director Levit and set designer Heesoo Kim make imaginative use of the Music Theater’s in-the-round stage, relying on its many traps to whisk props on and off rather than on scenery per se. At one point Kim uses gauzy fabric most effectively to suggest a grove of trees. Faced with the built-in problem of theater-in-the-round, Levit and choreographer Peter Pucci sometimes have the cast prowl around the stage too incessantly, but they do keep things moving.

It’s difficult to judge what future “Letters From ‘Nam” has, given this country’s continuing problem with the Vietnam War — not to mention current events.

Letters From 'Nam

North Shore Music Theater, Beverly, Mass.; 1,803 seats; $56 top

Production: A North Shore Music Theater presentation, in association with Vietnam Veterans of America, Barlove Prods. and Dee Gee Entertainment-Coronet Theater, of a musical play by Paris Barclay adapted from the book "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam," edited by Bernard Edelman. Directed by Ben Levit; choreographed by Peter Pucci; musical direction by Keith Thompson.

Creative: Sets, Heesoo Kim; costumes, Miguel Huidor; lighting, Peter Jakubowski; sound, John Stone; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler; stage manager, Robert Levinstein. North Shore Music Theater artistic director-executive producer, Jon Kimbell. Opened Sept. 6, 2001. Reviewed Sept. 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Eleanor Bridges - Maureen McGovern
Warrant Officer Billy Bridges - David Burnham
First Lt. Kenneth Rutherford - Dwayne L. Barnes
Sergeant George McDuffy - Levi Kreis
Specialist Fourth Class Rich Nunez - Jeff Mosier
Private First Class Alan Chisholm - Michael Cunio
Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson - Rodney Hicks
Supernumerary - Nathan Atkinson

More Legit

  • Michael Shannon Audra McDonald

    Michael Shannon, Audra McDonald to Star in Broadway Revival of 'Frankie and Johnny'

    Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald will portray two lovers whose one-night stand turns into something deeper in the Broadway revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” The production is being mounted in honor of playwright Terrence McNally’s 80th birthday. Shannon will play a short-order cook and McDonald will portray a waitress, roles [...]

  • Hamilton review London

    ‘Hamilton’ Helps Drive London Theater Attendance, Box Office to Record Levels

    Brits don’t just like going to the movies; they’re heading to the theater in greater numbers than before, too. “Hamilton” and other hits, particularly musicals, helped drive an uptick in box office receipts and attendance in London’s West End and across the U.K. last year, according to figures from the organizations Society of London Theatre [...]

  • Ethan Hawke

    Listen: Ethan Hawke on 'True West' and the Ghost of Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Ethan Hawke had a long relationship with Sam Shepard and his work — but he never thought he’d end up on Broadway in “True West.” That’s because Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly had already put their stamp on the show in the 2000 Broadway revival of the play. “I kind of felt that that [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Kaye Ballard, Star of 'The Mothers-in-Law,' Dies at 93

    Singer-comedienne Kaye Ballard, who starred alongside Eve Arden in the 1960s sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law” and was among the stars of the 1976 feature based on Terrence McNally’s farce “The Ritz,” died Monday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 93. She had recently attended a screening of a documentary about her life, “Kaye Ballard: The Show [...]

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content