Now in its historic 29th year, The York Theatre Company’s acclaimed “Musicals in Mufti,” recipient of a 2018 Obie Awards Grant, has returned for the first time in four years with a special Fall 2023 series of shows from the past that deserve another look, performed in a simply staged book-in-hand concert format, without the trappings of a full production. The third installment of this season, playing at the Theater at St. Jean’s for eleven performances through September 17, is The Lieutenant, a little-known rock opera with book, music and lyrics by Chuck Strand, Eugene Curty, and Nitra McAuliffe, which originally opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre on March 9, 1975, only ran for one week, but received four Tony and five Drama Desk Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Score.
Inspired by the horrific 1968 My Lai massacre of unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War, the show is centered on the journey of Lieutenant William Calley, from his enlistment, service in the US Army, and involvement in the mass murder, to the extensive media coverage and exposure of the military cover-up, resulting in his 1971 trial, guilty verdict, and court martial, as the sole chosen scapegoat, when many more soldiers and commanding officers were also guilty of the war crimes and suppression of the truth about them.
Directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino, with music direction by Eric Svjecar, the “Musical in Mufti” is far from a static or minimalist musical reading, despite the requisite visible scripts, folding chairs and music stands, and a brief rehearsal period of only five days. It’s filled with animated blocking and passionate performances by an across-the-board terrific cast of ten, nine playing multiple roles, that delivers the high energy and blockbuster vocals of the mostly sung-through rock opera of 23 character-defining and plot-advancing songs, the thoughts, actions, and personalities of the real-life wartime figures, and the overlying message of political protest that inspired it, led by the powerhouse portrayals of Anthony Festa in the titular role and Dan Domenech in the parts of both the Captain who issued the orders he followed and the subsequent defense attorney who pleads his case. Both combine their astonishing vocal range, extraordinary breath control, and the full-blown charisma of rock stars with the engaging, emotive, and empathetic acting skills that define the best of Broadway stars (which both are) in their expressive embodiments of the beliefs that drive their characters.
Rounding out the top-notch cast are Chris Cardozo, Hana Culbreath, William Thomas Evans, Travis Kent, Cal Mitchell, Noah Christopher Ruebeck, Alyssa Marie Watkins, and A.D. Weaver, each with featured scenes and songs, backed by a powerful five-piece orchestra conducted by Svejcar on piano, with George Petersen on guitar and keyboards, Gabriel Wareing on electric guitar and banjo, Eric Wharton on bass, and Ryan McCausland on percussion – all equally adept at the rock opera’s interspersed honky-tonk numbers and heartfelt ballads. Among the countless highlights are Cardozo’s wheedling Recruiting Sergeant, who convinces the naïve and troubled Lieutenant to “Join the Army” – as he does again with a new prospective recruit, with no conscience or concern after the My Lai catastrophe, in an affecting reprise that suggests the accountability of everyone involved in the propagation of militarism, during an era of widespread massive anti-war protests.
In keeping with the mufti format, the company is dressed in black everyday outfits (“mufti” means “in civilian clothes” – a term that is especially apropos to this particular narrative), donning only military caps to indicate their positions and shooting the mock rifles with which they are armed. The performance is supported by an evocative artistic design, with a floor covered in the white stars of the American flag, lighting by John Salutz and sound by Peter Brucker that enhance the moods and theme, and a backdrop screen of changing projections by Brucker and Matthew Gurren, with vintage photos of Vietnam, the US troops, and Uncle Sam, and changing silhouettes of a soldier, a gavel, and the scales of justice before a page of newspaper headlines about the war.
The Lieutenant is proof positive that The York’s “Musicals in Mufti” can be every bit as significant, impactful, and masterful as a full-stage production, so be sure to get your tickets and see it while you – and hope for a revival cast album.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.
The Lieutenant plays through Sunday, September 17, 2023, at The York Theatre Company, performing at The Theater at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, NYC. Talkbacks follow all matinee performances. For tickets (priced at $49-59, plus fees), go online. Masks are not required.