Private Jones At Goodspeed Musicals
Private Jones, Marshall Pailet’s ambitious new musical at Goodspeed Musicals, aims high and hits a few targets but ultimately misses the mark.
Based on a supposedly true story, Private Jones tells the story of a deaf kid from Breconshire, Wales, who lies about his age to do his bit in World War I. Since he lost his hearing in his youth, he is able to speak and, by reading lips, can get by – just.
Once in uniform, Private Gomer Jones (Johnny Link) masks his disability with the help of friends who send him signals that allow him to circumvent the army’s simple tests to detect hearing problems.
What makes Private Jones an asset to his company in the trenches of France is his exceptional ability as a sniper. Aided by Jack King (Claire Neumann), a comrade who shares his secret and who acts as his spotter, he racks up an impressive kill rate.
His deafness also wins Private Jones a reputation for fearlessness, largely because he can’t hear the bullets whistling past his ears.
Eventually, the ruse unravels. Jones’ deafness leaves him oblivious to the death of fellow soldiers around him as he tends obsessively to his rifle and he is unmasked by Edmund (Vincent Kempski), a fellow Welshman from his home town who recognizes him as the deaf kid who worked in a factory back home.
In the course of the show, we see Gomer develop from a kid reluctant to shoot the feral dogs decimating his family’s flock of sheep to an efficient killer who shoots a wounded and disarmed German to put him out of his misery.
In a subplot of sorts, Edmund brags of his prowess among the whores in a nearby brothel. Private Jones takes him to task for being unfaithful to his wife, which causes some understandable friction in the ranks. Later, when Gomer attends to a wounded Edmund, they have something of a rapprochement, occasioning the song “Fantasy,” which Kempski sings beautifully.
While Private Jones works quite well as a narrative of Gomer’s story, Pailet fails to knit the episodes of this picaresque tale together in a way that would help us understand why he did what he did, how he felt about his wartime experience and his disability, and what we should make of it all. Ultimately, for me, Private Jones remained a bit of an enigma.
Pailet has done triple duty as librettist, lyricist, and composer for Private Jones. His sturdy score draws on the Celtic traditions of his Welsh characters without ever quite evoking its full expressive potential. Unfortunately, many of the lyrics were hard to make out over the competition from the band and the backup vocals.
While Pailet does well enough on the writing and composing side, he excels as director. He has drawn impressive performances from his twelve cast members, about evenly divided between men and women. Since Private Jones is a war story, most of the women were called on to portray men. That’s become something of a stage cliché these days, so it was refreshing to see men nonchalantly taking on the roles of female nurses, beards and all.
There is no dancing in the show although Misha Shields is credited as choreographer. Some of the stylized motions of nurses attending to wounded soldiers showed a choreographic touch. But I found it hard to distinguish where Pailet’s blocking ended and Shields’ choreography began, which is as it should be.
The sets by Christopher and Justin Swader manage to look both suitably drab and quite handsome. Phuong Nguyễn has done well with the costumes, although the veteran in me bristled when a “major” appeared in Act Two with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve.
The cast includes two deaf actors. Dickie Hearts plays a number of roles including a captured German who happens to be a fellow sniper. In the dumb show required by mutually unintelligible languages, Gomer and he have a moment of recognition that was one of the few moments in the show that foregrounded the insanity of that war.
Amelia Hensley narrates some snatches of the action with ASL and, most memorably, plays a skeletal and very expressive dog. Think Bunraku puppetry with no attempt to mask the puppeteer.
(Some performances featured ASL interpretation and open captioning, but not the show I saw.)
Link is a fine Gomer Jones, making him an intriguing blend of hesitancy and self-assurance. As the cocksure King, Neumann does an excellent job of playing a man and might have been better had she refrained from scratching her non-existent testicles quite so much. Kempski turns his smoldering good looks to good effect as Edmund and David Aron Damane, who is blessed with a commanding voice, scores as Gomer’s father and a series of military figures.
Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester, CT, is dedicated to new musicals in the process of development. Presumably, Pailet and his creative team will continue to work on Private Jones. They’re off to an auspicious start.
Private Jones continues at Goodspeed Musicals’ Terris Theatre in Chester through November 5, 2023.
For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Goodspeed Musicals website.
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