A moving and thought-provoking ‘Unknown Soldier’ is recalled at Arena

With its well-constructed story and strong production, the memory musical unfolds with the delicacy of an heirloom music box.

Unknown Soldier is a new(ish) musical that asks whether we really know ourselves and the people around us, and just how far we’ll go to hold on to our memories, dreams, and desires. Written by book writer and co-lyricist Daniel Goldstein and late composer and co-lyricist Michael Friedman, the musical premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015 and enjoyed a shortened 2020 run at New York’s Playwrights Horizons before the COVID pandemic closed theaters.

Unknown Soldier traverses several decades and, despite the title, is more concerned with grandmother-granddaughter duo Lucy (Kerstin Anderson as a young adult, Judy Kuhn later in life) and Ellen (Riglee Ruth Bryson in youth, Lora Lee Gayer in adulthood). Following Lucy’s death, Ellen returns home to Troy, New York, a small upstate city struggling to cope with the deterioration of industry, to handle what’s left of the estate. Coming across a newspaper clipping of her grandmother with a returned World War I veteran identified only as “Unknown Soldier” (later to be played by Perry Sherman), she enlists the help of Cornell University researcher Andrew (Adam Chandler-Berat) to learn more about the mysterious man and decipher her grandmother’s hidden past. As their professional relationship turns increasingly personal, Ellen and Andrew must confront the secrets they carry and grapple with the people they once thought they’d become.

Perry Sherman as Frances Grand and Kerstin Anderson as Lucy Lemay in ‘Unknown Soldier.’ Photo by Kian McKellar.

Nearly a decade after its premiere, Unknown Soldier still manages to pass muster. In contrast to the raucous new military musical Private Jones, which played at Arlington’s Signature Theatre earlier this spring, Unknown Soldier unfolds with the delicacy of an heirloom music box, neither apologetic nor overly assertive. Moments of musical levity (“Milkshake,” dissecting the very fine line between a friendly meal and a date) and refreshing sarcasm (a vaudevillian “The Memory Song”) pull Unknown Soldier back from the brink of indulgent sentimentality. And Goldstein’s diligent structuring leaves no plot thread dangling, as regular moments of recall enrich the story and reward the audience for listening closely. With exceptional economy, he provides just enough exposition and distinctive characterization to capture interest early (including a delightful overview of “The Great War” by a young Ellen), setting the musical on a clean and compelling trajectory.

Adam Chanler-Berat as Andrew Hoffman and Lora Lee Gayer as Ellen Rabinowitz in ‘Unknown Soldier.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Where Goldstein runs into trouble is the musical’s rapid final sequences, which provide some answers (and a hearty dose of speculation), but require complete attention for full understanding. And, while Friedman and Goldstein’s musical meditations on memory are sweeping, romantic, and pleasant, they are also often fleeting and forgettable. The score is remarkably cohesive, even as it draws on varied styles and sentiments. But in such a seamless weaving of numbers, few of the tunes achieve standout status. To Goldstein’s credit, the lyrics are often more memorable than the melodies, from the witty and sardonic (“The Worst Town in New York”) to the winding and surprising (“Andrew’s Story”). And though Friedman and Marco Paguia’s orchestrations for the shoestring band (under associate music director Peter Leigh-Nilsen) are adequate, this small musical still begs for a larger pit.

With the benefit of orchestral augmentation, Cullman’s right-sized production would do well to serve as the model for future stagings of Unknown Soldier, with a cast of 11 fine performers and mostly evocative technical elements that keep the story front and center. Unknown Soldier is, after all, a memory play. And in making the most of scenic designer Mark Wendland’s gray-washed, utilitarian archive set, Cullman allows the snug Kreeger to feel both vast (like a trenched no man’s land or the recesses of one’s mind) and cramped (like the sidewalk outside Grand Central Station or the paralyzing anxieties of what could have been). In doing so, he underscores the physical and emotional distance between characters as they yearn for connection, understanding, and truth. Smartly, he utilizes several entry points around the set to fill and empty the stage quickly (with assistance from choreographer Patrick McCollum).

Costume designer Jacob A. Climer is tasked with rooting the characters in the periods to which they belong, and does so nicely — an olive wool uniform for Private Francis Grand (the name given to the Unknown Soldier) in 1918, a short dress over mustard-yellow tights for 1973’s Young Ellen, and a chinos-windbreaker combo for Andrew in 2003. The rest of the production elements, following Wendland’s lead, offer a soft touch in deference to the story. Lighting designer Ben Stanton’s illumination of several miniature homes conjures the image of a once-thriving turn-of-the-century city, even among mostly sterile washes of bright, officelike lights. Lucy MacKinnon’s projections of clouds and constellations underscore the expanse of our memory and the world beyond ourselves. And Leon Rothenberg’s sound design beautifully balances the unseen band with the onstage performers, who are all well-suited for their roles.

TOP: Perry Sherman as Frances Grand in ‘Unknown Soldier.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane. ABOVE: Kerstin Anderson as Lucy Lemay in ‘Unknown Soldier.’ Photo by Kian McKellar.

As the adult Ellen, Gayer effectively conveys the pushed-down dreams of a woman whose plan for life (and accompanying marriage) veers off course with no clear sense of how to return. Her tart flirtation with Chanler-Berat’s deceptively harmless and nerdy Andrew is enthralling. Together, they egg the audience into believing the predictable is inevitable, only to yank the rug to great effect. Despite her young age, Bryson does well in echoing the mannerisms and defense mechanisms on which Gayer’s Ellen leans heavily. And the compatibility between actors playing different ages of the same role doesn’t end there. While Anderson’s young Lucy is immediately charming and naive, she deftly captures the mounting desperation that comes to characterize Lucy’s interactions with the Unknown Soldier. In doing so, Anderson successfully tees up Kuhn’s beautiful, if understated, portrayal of Lucy’s elderly counterpart, struggling to decipher the line between the present and the past. Together, the principal and supporting cast perform Friedman and Goldstein’s score with uniform aplomb.

While Unknown Soldier is unlikely to leave audiences humming as they exit, its well-constructed story and strong production have the makings for a moving, thought-provoking night at the theater. Who among us lives without the regret of having passed up the chance to ask a loved one a soul-baring question? Who is free from the if/then questions that make one wonder what might have been? Who hasn’t faced the revelation that someone who was seemingly so well-known was practically a stranger? And who hasn’t felt the fear of losing the sweet and sorrowful memories of first love? One never really knows who is sitting around them in the audience. Perhaps Unknown Soldiers (and Ellens and Lucys and Andrews) are all around us.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission

Unknown Soldier plays through May 5, 2024, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.). Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.

The program for Unknown Soldier is online here.

Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in designated mask-required performances (Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, May 1, at 12 p.m.; Saturday, May 4, at 8 p.m.). For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.

Unknown Soldier
Book by Daniel Goldstein
Music by Michael Friedman
Lyrics by Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein
Directed by Trip Cullman

Lucy Lemay: Kerstin Anderson*
Lucy Rabinowitz/Young Ellen: Riglee Ruth Bryson
Andrew: Adam Chanler-Berat*
Ellen Rabinowitz: Lora Lee Gayer*
Swing / u/s Lucy Anderson: Amy Griffin*
Doctor: Nehal Joshi*
Lucy Anderson: Judy Kuhn*
Ensemble / u/s Ellen Rabinowitz/Lucy Lemay: Candice Shedd-Thompson*
Francis: Perry Sherman*
Swing: Jordyn Taylor*
Swing / u/s Francis: Wood Van Meter*
u/s Lucy Rabinowitz/Young Ellen: Elizabeth Vargo
Ensemble / u/s Doctor: Ronald Joe Williams*
Ensemble / u/s Andrew: Taylor Witt*
Ensemble: Sumié Yotsukura*

Book and Lyrics: Daniel Goldstein
Music and Lyrics: Michael Friedman
Director: Trip Cullman
Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Marco Paguia
Co-Music Supervisors: Julie McBride and Marco Paguia
Music Director: Chris Kong
Set Designer: Mark Wendland
Costume Designer: Jacob A. Climer
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Projection Designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Hair, Wig, and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas
Associate Director: Susanna Wolk
Associate Choreographer: Francine Espiritu
Associate Music Director: Peter Leigh-Nilsen
Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zöe
Casting Director: Joseph Pinzon
NY Casting: Patrick Goodwin, The Telsey Office
Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff*
Assistant Stage Manager: Dayne Sundman*

*Members of Actors’ Equity Association


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