Never underestimate the importance of good source material.
"West Side Story" has it. "Porgy and Bess" has it. "Ragtime" has it. "For The Boys" does not.
"For The Boys"★ ★ ½
Location: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847) 634-0200 or http://marriott theatre.com
Showtimes: 1 and 8 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 16
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $41-$49, dinner-theater packages available
Parking:Free lot adjacent to the theater
Rating: Some adult themes, for teens and older
Marriott Theatre co-artistic director Aaron Thielen adapted the new musical from the so-so 1991 film of the same name starring Bette Midler and James Caan as a dueling song-and-dance duo who entertain U.S. troops during wartime. Thielen's version is sincere and well-intentioned. And Marriott Theatre's world premiere under director/choreographer Marc Robin boasts a couple of winning performances from principles Michele Ragusa and Timothy Gulan.
But "For The Boys" never really gets off the ground, despite a tuneful jukebox score that includes the likes of "I Remember You," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." That the music serves mostly to accompany the action rather than advance the plot is one problem. Characters drawn too broadly or too slightly is another. Lastly, it seems the show hasn't yet decided what it wants to be.
It opens in 1942, with Dixie Leonard (Ragusa in a vibrant, emotionally resonant performance), an army wife with a young son and a husband fighting in Europe, who works as a cabaret singer in New York. Dixie's uncle (Michael Weber) gets her a spot on a European USO tour headed by comedian and song-and-dance man Eddie Sparks (Gulan, who earns kudos for his nicely ambiguous performance as a man whose motives for entertaining the G.I.s may not be entirely selfless). Eddie finds the feisty Dixie overbearing and she finds him self-serving, but the two have a chemistry which makes them a hit with the troops and later on TV, where they enjoy a long run as hosts of a weekly variety show. (In a show that lacks the kind of rousing production numbers at which Robin excels, the director displays his usual panache during a dizzying, inventively staged scene set in a TV studio).
Ignoring objections from Dixie, always more emotionally invested in the troops than her partner, Eddie arranges for them to take their USO tour to Korea, where they confront for the first time, battlefield horrors. The following decade finds them in Vietnam, where Dixie meets her son Danny (Jameson Cooper), serving as a U.S. Army captain.
In a show underscored by the USO experience, Robin and especially Ragusa create some wonderfully poignant moments with soldiers in the field. Ragusa's artless take on the delicate "What A Wonderful World" is particularly moving. That suggests "For The Boys" has something to say about the comfort music, laughter and familiar faces provide and how it impacts America's fighting forces. But the "Boys" get sidelined when the show transitions postwar into a backstage musical about a couple of stars who make onstage magic despite their testy personal relationship. Moreover, the subplot involving a Hollywood witch hunt for Communist sympathizers feels superfluous.
That said, the show boasts a strong supporting cast that includes an uncharacteristically frosty performance by Summer Naomi Smart as Eddie's wife; terrific dancing by Melissa Zaremba as a USO bombshell, a genial turn by Anne Gunn as a wisecracking second banana, along with Michael Aaron Lindner and Bernie Yvon, underused in underwritten parts as Eddie's manager and band leader respectively.
Video designer Sage Marie Carter also deserves mention for the projections -- comprised of archival wartime photos with the actors' faces superimposed -- which serve as transitions between eras.
Ultimately, an innovative director can capture the imagination of an audience. Designers can dazzle them and talented actors can transfix them, but they need a solid foundation, one "For The Boys" doesn't yet supply.