There are moments in Private Jones, the new musical that just concluded its run at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester, that touch your soul.
Johnny Link’s performance as the title character has a big part in this.
Private Jones is based on the true story of a young man from a small Welsh town who manages to enlist in the British army during WWI despite a hearing loss. He may not be able to hear, but he can shoot, becoming a sniper taking out German soldiers from across the trenches.
The show, written and directed by Marshall Pailet, was developed at Goodspeed, and this was its first production. Another is scheduled.
I found a lot to praise in this production. First, the scenic design by Christopher and Justin Swader, costumes by Phong Nguyen, lighting by Jen Schriever and, especially the sound design by Jay Hilton are all excellent. Hilton uses old-school sound effects to indicate targets being hit and the sounds of war.
It features some excellent performances. Link as Gomer Jones brings an innocence to the role that catches you. As the show progresses, Link slowly reveals Gomer finding confidence. Claire Neuman is King, the soldier who uses sign language to direct Gomer to the target. Her portrayal of King, all bluster and sexual innuendo, is real and humorous. You quickly realize that his multiple conquests are fantasies. Leanne Antonio is fine as Gwendolyn, a nurse who encourages Gomer to reapply to the Army after being turned down because of his hearing loss. As Gwendolyn, she is both practical and sweet; you see Gomer falling in love with her. Vincent Kempski does an admirable job with Edmund as the antagonist to Gomer.
As I watched the show, my mind went to two other shows about WWI: Oh What a Lovely War! Which desperately needs a revival and Silent Night: The Christmas Truce of 1914, which uses letters, news articles, and songs of the period to depict not just the meeting of British and German soldiers that Christmas Eve but the war itself.
With any new show, things will be reworked. I hope a new director will take over. Pailet did a good job with the directing, but a fresh eye – someone who is not also the composer, lyricist, and book writer – needs to get involved. The fact that Gwendolyn and Evans are played by the same actor should be reconsidered. It creates some connotations that do not seem to be intended. Either that or make them clearer.
The role of Edmund, who arrives well into the play, is muddled. Why does he need to be both the soldier who wants to get Gomer thrown out of the Army AND Gwendolyn’s husband?
Private Jones is touching, with some lovely songs and an honest depiction of male bonding.