Poignant Scottish laments, sassy cabaret singers, fierce-yet-terrified soldiers — it sounds like the making of a good musical, and writer Alan Bryce, along with his Centerstage Theatre team, turns that musical into a powerful ode to those sacrificed in World War I. Opening this weekend at the Federal Way theater, the brand-new “For All That” could still do with a bit of tweaking, but it succeeds on the strength of a committed cast, strong direction and a set that creates its own drama.
You would think a musical about WWI would be about as sensitive as a musical about Sept. 11, but Bryce and his composer John Forster have married excellent historical detail, a classic love story and reams of Scottish folk music to create something that’s less a musical and more a drama-with-song. As we’re introduced to the charming crofters on the remote Scottish island of Lewis in around 1914, the characters and plot develop woven through with traditional songs (“Mairi’s Wedding, “For All That”) sung with grit and good tone by the ensemble. We meet brothers Donald (a decisive, sexy Cooper Harris-Turner) who farms, and Andrew (Joshua Williamson, bland and a bit slow) who doesn’t, having returned from Edinburgh studies with new-fangled ideas — including conscientious objection to the war in which all the young Lewis men must now serve. Kathryn Jett makes an archly thoughtful Mairi, who chooses Donald over Andrew; Kate Witt is robust as their mother Murann.
Most of the singing is just fine, though Jett could be a steadier soprano. Brilliant cameo roles include Simon Pringle’s slightly-manic drill sergeant (thanks to this Scot, the accents are uniformly excellent) and Bridgid Abrams’ wonderfully hammed-up French cabaret singer, brassy and sassy alternating with raw sadness.
But it’s Randall Scott Carpenter that steals the show as the simple, gentle-hearted Malcolm, Mairi’s brother and the first Lewis man to both kill and suffer for it. As the plot moves inexorably on, he makes a superb transformation from naïve to bewildered, panicked and finally despairing, a heart-breaking performance epitomizing the worst wastage of war. Don’t expect to head into intermission with dry eyes.
Bryce juggles his multiple locations with short-burst scenes that flicker like gunfire from France to Scotland, sometimes a little too fast but mostly with dramatic tension. Rhode (a young London director who seems headed for great things) uses every blocking to powerful effect and keeps the pace relentless and scene changes seamless. The stage — raised three feet from the floor by designer Craig Wollam — is brilliant, using the steep raking to pull us into every scene from hillside to café to trenches and back again.
The only big problem with such a stage is that the band is buried underneath it, adding synchronization problems to the lackluster sound of keyboards, guitar and fiddle. Musically there are other issues, like the Celtic rock suddenly jarring the early-20th-century vibe, and a few key solos (“An Eala Bhan,” “Ae Fond Kiss”) a little tritely written.
The first act of “For All That” is definitely more energetic than the second, by which time the best actors are killed off. But the historical text panels in the lobby add depth to the wartime tragedy, and by the unbelievably touching ending (drawn from Bryce’s real-life family history) “For All That” has well and truly captured the stark emotion of this moment in time.