BOTTOM LINE: A stirring revival of an American protest musical.
In the spring of 1932 thousands of out-of-work World War I veterans, their families, and other supporters marched on Washington DC and stayed there late into the summer months, setting up camp in a nearby Hooverville. They became known as The Bonus Army, demanding cash reimbursement for the certificates issued to them by the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, which were not redeemable until 1945. In late July, the marchers congregated on the U.S. Capitol in response to the Senate voting down the Bonus Bill. Police, with orders from the Attorny General, began to evacuate the camps soon after and were met with some resistance. The U.S. Army was then called in for reinforcement, led by General Douglas MacArthur, and armed with tanks, bayonets, and expelling a form of tear gas. Many were injured, even more arrested, and two were killed during the police and military intervention.
With a book by David Epstein and music and lyrics by Al Carmines, The Bonus Army is a revival of an original protest musical first presented in 1976 that tells the true story of the Bonus Expeditionary Force. It is produced by Judson Arts, who has been active in the modern Occupy Movement, and presented in the round at THE GYM at Judson. The production features a cast of 35 with a handful of musicians (who also double as ensemble members) swapping out on various instruments to produce the folksy Americana score. The production is environmental theatre, but on the light side, as the performers do mingle into the audience and there is protest signage throughout the space. However, there isn't much in the way of audience interaction (save for some eye contact) and no one is ushering you from one room to the next or telling you where to stand, as the audience is comfortably seated in typical auditorium fashion. This is not to say that I wasn't pulled into the action and made to feel a part of the events, because from the first moments of the show when an older man behind me (a cast member I later realized) belted out with a beautiful baritone the chorus of the opening number "We Won the War,", I was wholly engaged.
I was pleased and surprised to learn that musical theatre can still give me chills, for it is not often that an audience is treated to such a large cast, heavy on deeply resonant men's voices, singing music that sounds as genuine and true to the story being told as is the case in The Bonus Army. Directed with grace and precision by Russell Treyz, music direction by Michael Conley, expertly lit by David M. Upton, with a cast that is extraordinarily game and enthusiastic, the production is simply a fine example of how much musical theatre can accomplish when put in the right hands. The cast is solid accross the board, with an ensemble sound that is as aggressive and impactful as any I have heard or been a part of. Stand-outs include John Cormier, as single loaner Tom Flint, who has a soaring voice and makes show stoppers out of "My Old Man" and "You Gotta Make Waves," as well as Martin L'Herault, Megan Thomas, Paul Murphy, and Mark DiConzo (chewing away at the scenery as General MacArthur).
Though the lyrics are at times a bit pedestrian, the patter songs a tad too lengthy, the humor a touch broad, the romantic plot points verging on heavy-handed, these downfalls are so slight as to be almost irrelevant when put in context with what is right about this property and this production. The piece is aided greatly by the in-the-round space and it is obvious that there is a great deal of passion, respect, and reverence for the material which shines through in every aspect of this exciting production. I recommend it highly and am looking forward to the future of Judson Arts at THE GYM at Judson.
(The Bonus Army plays at THE GYM at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, through September 19, 2013. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM, as well as Monday, September 9 at 8PM and Tuesday, September 17th at 8PM. Tickets are $18 and are available by visiting brownpapertickets.com/event/441752.)