Playwright: Leslie Arden, music and lyrics; Berni Stapleton; book
At: Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 20 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston
Phone: 847-491-7282; $15-$30
Through Aug. 13
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Adapting and modernizing Shakespeare into Broadway musicals has produced enduring masterpieces ( West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate ) and terminal flops ( Rockabye Hamlet ) . So it's with great pleasure to report that The Boys Are Coming Home ( an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing ) has all the makings of a winner.
The Boys Are Coming Home is the second major musical produced under the aegis of Northwestern University's ambitious American Music Theatre Project ( following last year's Wizard of Oz deconstruction Was ) . Although it's strong, Boys certainly could improve on its bona fide crowd-pleaser status with a minor tweak or two.
Kudos definitely goes to choreographer Timothy French for his initial conception of resetting the Bard's romantic comedy in post-World War II America. Shakespeare's insights into love and trust fit in wonderful confluence with the 1940s growing pains of a re-emergent America smartly explored by Canadian composer Leslie Arden ( The House of Martin Guerre ) and playwright Berni Stapleton.
As much as WWII veterans and home front workers have been trumpeted as 'The Greatest Generation,' the musical's authors use this show to point out some of the era's failings. Rampant racism threatens a budding interracial relationship between composer/bandleader Brad ( Ross Brendlinger ) and African-American singer Maggie ( Harriet Nzinga Plumpp ) , while sexism toward women in wartime factories rears its ugly head when returning soldiers start insisting these newly independent workers go back to the kitchen en masse.
Arden and Stapleton run with Shakespeare's great template, refashioning and fortifying his already strong women characters ( especially in the great girl-group harmonic number One Step Forward ) . Transforming the tart-tongued heroine Beatrice ( a tough Catherine Brookman ) into a Rosie the Riveter-type is a given, especially when sparring with James Rank's endearing Benedict stand-in of confirmed bachelor Capt. Ben Taylor.
The usually shrinking hero becomes a wonderfully headstrong nurse Helen Nathaniel ( a vocally resplendent Emily Thompson ) , who doesn't fall completely apart when shamed by her distrusting fiancee, Lt. Charlie Miller ( Jarrod Zimerman ) or shunned by her father, factory owner Leo ( Jonathan Weir ) . Gal pal Shirley Bailey ( a smart and pert Morgan Weed ) also makes a strong impression as a great romantic schemer.
Where Arden and Stapleton could do more work is with villain John McAfree ( Michael Rosenblum ) , who has a reasonable motivation for his jealous scheming but feels phony in his songs The Golden Boy and According to John. The top of the show could also do with a bigger anthem-like opening number and some streamlining of the wordy exposition. Beatrice and Ben's first spoken sparring match also pales when compared to their later musical dueling of You're Like a Song and Let the Band Play On at the Canteen ( where the show really takes off with the big band number The Bebop Boy ) .
Other than these quibbles, the show really jibes under Gary Griffin's sturdy direction and French's fun swing choreography. The college cast ( sprinkled with a few Equity actors ) all work and sing marvelously together, as does the student orchestra under conductor Travis J. Cross' strong musical direction.
While it's too soon to predict whether The Boys Are Coming Home will see its name in Broadway lights, it's certainly on its way to a V-E Day-worthy celebration.