Review | A romantic mystery that spans a century


“Unknown Soldier,” a compelling, still-new musical that had the rotten luck to premiere at Playwrights Horizons in New York in March of 2020, is less a war story than a romantic mystery spanning almost a century.

If “rotten luck” sounds like a cavalier way of referring to a historic mass-casualty upheaval, that’s in keeping with the show’s narrative, which concerns middle-aged OB/GYN Ellen’s quest, in 2003, to identity a man in a magazine photograph with her grandmother taken more than 80 years earlier. Ellen’s grandfather, so far as she knows, was killed in action in World War I after a whirlwind one-day courtship-and-marriage to her grandmother the day before he shipped out. Ellen’s own mother died in childbirth, leaving the grandmother who’d had a husband for just a few hours, almost half a century earlier, to raise her. Rotten luck, with generational consequences.

Daniel Goldstein’s book pings continually (and sometimes confusingly) among three eras: There’s the 2003 story, wherein Ellen (Lora Lee Gayer, calibrating her stoicism-to-vulnerability just right) begins an online flirtation with overeager Cornell University research librarian Andrew (Adam Chanler-Berat, charmingly, then toxically, neurotic), who’s helping her find out who the guy in the picture is. (Their will-we-or-won’t-we duet “Milkshake” is not quite as indelible as the eponymous banger by Kelis — also from 2003! — but that’s a high bar.)

There’s a 1973 section, wherein the ponytailed preadolescent Ellen is learning about the Great War while driving her septuagenarian grandma Lucy (versatile Judy Kuhn) nuts. Then there’s the 1918-20 part, wherein the young Lucy (Kerstin Anderson), a widowed mother before age 20, visits an amnesiac returned soldier (Perry Sherman) in a mental hospital for months on end. A sympathetic doctor (Nehal Joshi) has christened that mute doughboy “Francis Grand,” because he seemed to respond to “Francis” and Grand Central Station is where he was found.

It’s a lot of narrative scaffolding to hang a score on, but the majority of the 16 numbers are worthy. The music is by Michael Friedman (he and Goldstein co-wrote the lyrics), who like so many characters here died young, at 41, just two years after “Unknown Soldier” had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015.

Friedman seems to have used the earliest part of the story as his guide, keeping this musically in the pre-rock era. While it’s always difficult to assess a score on a single hearing, the first impression is that the solo numbers are stronger than ensemble ones like “The Memory Song,” an incongruously cheerful rundown both of clinical amnesia and of how we tend to recall things we’d prefer to regret and vice versa.

Gayer makes Ellen’s late-evening, malaise-in-melody “I Give Away Children” a showstopper, while Anderson’s rendition of the young Lucy’s “A Husband Takes Care of the Things” is even sadder, as Lucy has reached this point of isolation in less than half the time it will take her not-yet-born granddaughter. Another standout is “The People Stare,” when the mute soldier Francis at last unburdens himself. Anderson and Sherman both reprise their roles from the truncated 2020 production, and these performances make it a no-brainer for director Trip Cullman (also returning from the 2020 version) to have brought them back.

Cullman has also kept his original production team: Mark Wendland’s set transforms from a colorless warehouse space of storage boxes into an internally illuminated model of Troy, the “Worst Town in New York” (as it’s decreed in an early Ellen-and-Andrew duet) where 2003 Ellen is cleaning out the childhood home she inherited from the recently deceased grandma Lucy. (The book doesn’t comment on this, but by my math Lucy would’ve been more than 100 years old when she died.) There’s an analog clock on the wall, its hands conspicuously missing. It’s an eloquent reminder that however cruelly the past may haunt us, the time is always now.

Unknown Soldier, through May 5 at Arena Stage. 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission.


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