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World Premiere of 'Boys' Revisits Post-World War II Era

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June 20, 2006 | by Judy Moore

EVANSTON, Ill. --- “The Boys Are Coming Home,” the second new musical to emerge from Northwestern University's American Music Theatre Project, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's “Much Ado About Nothing.” It explores the new order of male-female relationships that came into being when American servicemen returned home from World War II.

The world premiere of “Boys,” held from July 28 to Aug. 13 at the University's Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 30 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston campus, will be the highlight of the University's Summerfest 2006 Theatre Festival. The show's official press opening is Aug. 4. The Chicago law firm of Gardner Carton and Douglas LLP and William Donnell are the honorary producers of “Boys.”

The music and lyrics are by Leslie Arden, who scored a major success with her “The House of Martin Guerre,” produced at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The book is by Berni Stapleton from an idea by Timothy French, who will be the show's choreographer. “Boys” will be directed by Gary Griffin, award-winning director of the Broadway musical “The Color Purple.”

“'The Boys Are Coming Home' is set in 1945, right on the cusp of swing and bebop,” said Arden. “What a beautiful musical metaphor for a show which explores the ramifications of World War II in America, the “just war” which was a catalyst for overwhelming social, sexual, racial and political change. At the same time, 'bebop,' dubbed 'anarchy in music,' was also bending and breaking the old, comfortable musical rules, exploring new harmonies and rhythms while refusing to play it safe.”

Arden said her challenge was to find a musical voice for the show that suggested the era, but was also contemporary in the way it explores the personal stories portrayed in the musical.

“This demanded a larger palette than just swing or bebop,” said the composer-lyricist. “I decided to write a score that is informed by the popular musical styles of 1945, but is certainly not limited to them. So, 'Boys' has a little Duke (Ellington), a little Gershwin, a little Sondheim and a whole lot of Arden.”

“You Could Never Understand,” a duet between Charlie, a war hero and his devoted girlfriend Helen, is among the songs that Arden composed for “Boys.” The lyrics convey the sadness and isolation of Charlie's four-year absence from home as well as the fears and uncertainty that Helen experienced when he was fighting on the battlefield.

“One Step Forward (Two Steps Back)” is a swing number that takes place in the Army canteen when Bea, who served as a factory foreman during the war years, learns that men will replace her and the other women.

The show ends with “Start Again,” performed by Helen, Charlie and the company, when they realize that while the path ahead is laced with uncertainty, it is also filled with hope.

“I'm thrilled to be involved,” said director Gary Griffin. “'Boys' is a fresh and inventive new musical that's unlike a lot of what's being presented today, and developing the project through AMTP has been the perfect way to launch it.”

Added AMTP Artistic Director Stuart Oken, “Leslie Arden's unique musical voice grabbed hold of me when I first saw 'Martin Guerre' and hasn't let go since. I'm thrilled to finally be working with her and an outstanding group of artists under Gary Griffin's expert leadership. The entire process has been joyful, and we're ready for an audience.”

The “Boys” cast will feature a mix of student performers and several of Chicago's most prominent professional music theatre artists. Recent Northwestern graduate Jarrod Zimmerman and Northwestern senior Emily Thompson will play the principal pair of lovers -- Charlie Miller and Helen Nathaniel. Since graduating in June 2005, Zimmerman has been a regular at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and recently appeared in “The Spitfire Grill” at Theatre Building Chicago. Thompson has been featured in several of Northwestern's recent productions, including the Waa-Mu Show and “The Last Five Years.” She appeared in AMTP's premiere production of “WAS” last fall. Northwestern sophomore Catherine Brookman and Equity guest artist James Rank play the willful and sparring lovebirds Bea Wallace and Captain Ben Taylor. Rank, a well-known figure in Chicago music theatre and opera circles, is a Northwestern alumnus and recently starred in the critically acclaimed Drury Lane Water Tower theatre production of “Grand Hotel.” Brookman was recently seen in a benefit concert production of Andrew Lippa's “The Wild Party.” He also was featured in AMTP's sold-out concert staging of composer Eric Whitacre's opera electronica, “Paradise Lost,” that was performed last February at Northwestern's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp will play the pivotal role of Maggie Lincoln, a maid in Leo's household and a singer of great promise. Plumpp appeared at the Goodman Theatre in Stephen Sondheim's “Bounce” and recently appeared in Frank Galati's “Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein,” an Absolute Theatre production presented at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. She also starred in Apple Tree Theatre's “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.”

Chicago theatre veteran Jonathan Weir will appear as wealthy industrialist and factory owner Leo Nathaniel, Helen's father. Larry Adams has been cast as General Donald Peters, a professional soldier. Audiences nationwide have seen Weir as the villainous character Scar in the national touring company of Disney's “The Lion King.” Local audiences have seen him in productions at the Goodman and the Marriott Lincolnshire theatres. Adams recently appeared on Broadway in “Phantom Of The Opera” and has played a number of leading roles at the Drury Lane Oakbrook.

Leslie Arden is one of Canada's most prominent composer-lyricists. Her acclaimed musical, “The House of Martin Guerre” received Canada's highest honor, the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Musical and Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Musical. She also received the Chalmer's Award for her children's musical “The Happy Prince.” She is currently working on a contemporary musical version of “Moll Flanders.”

Book writer Berni Stapleton is regarded as one of Canada's best writers and performance artists. She is an award-winning author, an internationally produced playwright and a radio/television commentator.

Choreographer Timothy French has received Calgary's Betty Mitchell Award for outstanding choreography of “A Chorus Line” and Edmonton's Sterling Haynes Award for outstanding choreography for “The Music Man.” His production of “A Little Night Music” received Toronto's Dora Award for Best Production.

In addition to his recent Broadway production of “The Color Purple,” director Gary Griffin has received eight Joseph Jefferson Awards for directing. He is the associate artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater where he recently staged “A Flea In Her Ear.” His Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Stephen Sondheim's “Pacific Overtures” won the coveted Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical in London.

The “Boys” professional production staff includes musical supervisor Ryan Nelson, scenic designer Tom Burch, costume designer Nan Zabriskie, lighting designer Joe Appelt and sound designer Josh Horvath.

The American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) is a new initiative at Northwestern University dedicated to nourishing the vitality of American music theatre through the development and production of new musicals by music theatre's leading artists; increasing opportunities for education and training with Northwestern's theatre, dance and opera programs; and initiating a broad range of interdisciplinary research projects.

AMTP's first production was an adaptation of Geoff Ryman's novel “WAS” with book and lyrics by Barry Kleinbort, music by Joseph Thalken and direction by Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tina Landau.

AMTP was introduced in May 2005 by Northwestern University's School of Communication, in collaboration with the School of Music, Kellogg School of Management, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School. Seed funding for this initiative was provided by prominent Northwestern alumnus and respected Hollywood writer, producer and television, film and theatre director Garry K. Marshall and his wife Barbara.

AMTP's ultimate goal is the establishment of a permanent Center for the American Music Theatre on Northwestern's Evanston campus. The center would expand upon the work of AMTP, as well as introduce new programs, including an annual summer festival of new musicals.

“The Boys Are Coming Home” will be performed at the Barber Theatre at 8 p.m. July 28; 8 p.m. July 29; 2 p.m. July 30; 8 p.m. Aug. 3; 8 p.m. Aug. 4; 8 p.m. Aug. 5; 2 p.m. Aug. 6; 2 p.m. Aug. 10; 8 p.m. Aug. 11; 8 p.m. Aug. 12; and 2 p.m. Aug. 13.

Tickets are $30 for the general public; $27 for senior citizens and Northwestern faculty and staff; and $15 for students and children.

For tickets or more information call the Theatre and Interpretation Center Box Office at (847) 491-7282 or visit <www.tic.northwestern.edu>.