Review: Midwest Premiere of From Here to Eternity Opens in Milwaukee

War is hell, they say. But the months leading up to war can also be a kind of hell, as demonstrated by the characters in From Here to Eternity, a new musical that opened recently at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee.

The mundane reality of military life in the Hawaiian Islands before the bombing of Pearl Harbor was first outlined in the novel by James Jones. As a young man, Jones left his hometown of Robinson, Ill., to join the Army in 1939. He served in Hawaii during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This surprise air raid and its resulting devastation to the US fleet led to America’s involvement in World War II.

Jones’ firsthand account of this event is vividly recounted in his novel, although the story mainly focuses on US soldiers and the women in their lives.

Well-known Milwaukee actors Neil Brookshire (as Captain Holmes, seated) and Jonathan Wainwright (Colonel Delbert). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Many Americans are more familiar with the 1953 black-and-white film of the same title, starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra. The Academy Award-winning film (including Best Picture) was a huge success for everyone involved. The film’s most famous scene, involving Clift and Kerr locked in an embrace while lying on a foamy Hawaiian beach, has achieved meme-like notoriety over the years.

In the 1950s, some of the novel’s more controversial elements were removed from the film so it could pass morality codes at that time. Many of these elements have been restored in this musical, which was launched 11 years ago in Britain. The musical has scenes that deal with homosexuality among soldiers and a more accurate picture of the relationship between Private Prewitt (played in the film by Montgomery Clift) and an American prostitute, Lorene (played in the film by Donna Reed).

Contributors from New York and Across the Pond

At Skylight, many of the onstage and behind-the-scenes contributors hail from New York and Britain. The cream of British theater royalty, Sir Tim Rice (lyricist for Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Lion King), provides the lyrics to music by composer Stuart Brayson. The book was written by Donald Rice (Tim Rice’s son) and Bill Oakes, and the production is directed by New York director/choreographer Brett Smock. Music director is New York composer Logan Medland, who has performed in the orchestra for Broadway shows such as A Bronx Tale and Dr. Zhivago.

The musical strives to capture the day-to-day routines of American soldiers who are guarding the American fleet. The show begins with a large group of backlit soldiers standing in military rows, as a projection of the Hawaiian Islands appears on a scrim in front of them. The music swells and it is an impressive scene.

Private Robert Prewitt (Ian Ward) and fellow GIs. Photo by Mark Frohna.


Slowly, the audience gets acquainted with the khaki-clad individuals in this group. We are introduced to a colonel (popular Milwaukee actor Jonathan Wainwright) who is drilling one of his captains (Neil Brookshire, also a Milwaukee favorite) for details on the events that led to several deaths among the soldiers. “We’ve got to get our stories straight,” the colonel warns his second in command.

Similar interrogation scenes are woven through the musical, in between the general narrative sequences. The soldiers express the boredom of their daily life, which is mainly composed of emergency drills, cleaning the barracks and peeling potatoes. Ironically, one of the top brass quips, “the only threats here (in Hawaii) are the mosquitoes and second-rate beer.” He says that only the scenic beauty of Hawaii provides any solace.

The arrival of Private Robert Prewitt (Ian Ward) sets the main plot in motion. His transfer from another unit on the island was engineered by Sergeant Milt Warden (Matt Faucher) in an effort to bring attention to the unit’s boxing team. He was supported in this by Captain Holmes (Brookshire), who saw the unit's increased visibility as a way of boosting his own career goals. However, Prewitt shatters this notion when he announces that he has given up boxing. A rising star in the boxing ring, Prewitt accidentally caused one of his previous opponents to lose his sight during a match. Then and there, Prewitt swore off boxing forever.

Turning Prewitt’s Life into a Living Hell

With their dreams shattered, Holmes and Warden turn Prewitt over to the hated Sergeant Judson (Jared Brandt Hoover). Prewitt is forced to spend his days doing one menial task after another, all the while being taunted and even beaten by Judson. (Ernest Borgnine played Judson in the film.) Reluctantly, Prewitt makes friends with another recruit, the gregarious Private Angelo Maggio, played by Gianni Palmarini. (In the film, Frank Sinatra played the role of the big-mouthed Maggio, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.) Palmarini shines in this small but pivotal role. It is Maggio who takes Prewitt to the town brothel where Lorene works. This pretty young woman is played by Milwaukee’s Jamie Mercado.

Prewitt falls for Lorene as a temporary antidote to his otherwise miserable life. Like him, she’s a transplant from the US mainland. Prewitt claims that he only feels at home while in her arms, and he does a number of questionable things to get enough money to pay for an entire evening with her.

Ward and Mercado make a credible couple, despite their diverse circumstances. Their sweet, upbeat duet (“Love Me Forever Today”) is perhaps the musical’s best song.

Singing World War II GIs (set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec). Photo by Mark Frohna.

There are other musical strong points in the show, especially when the songs are accompanied by Brett Smock’s athletic choreography. How the actors can sing while doing calisthenics is amazing to watch. Many of the tunes hearken back to the swing era of the 1940s, with a bit of pop and blues tossed in.

Another memorable tune, “Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues,” opens Act II. It’s sung by Prewitt and Sergeant Warden, who harmonize nicely. Another musical standout is the finale, “The Boys of ’41,” which features the full cast. Eventually, the voices fade and an onscreen projection lists the names of the nearly 2,000 US soldiers who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a sobering moment, and a powerful one.

The show’s only disappointment is a pale recreation (or lack of one) for the erotically charged beach scene between Warden and a captain’s wife. As waves crash against the shore in a projected backdrop, Warden picks up Karen (Kaitlyn Davidson) and exits offstage. One hopes that a more memorable sequence will be used in subsequent productions.
Many elements of From Here to Eternity are already Broadway-worthy. This includes the frightening attack on Pearl Harbor, which is recreated using projections and slowed-down movements by the soldiers as they realize what is happening above them. Louds bombs “explode” in the theater as the soldiers rush around in disarray onstage.

Skylight’s artistic director Michael Unger is to be commended for bringing such an exciting and ambitious project to Milwaukee stages. While theatergoers with a fondness for the World War II era will certainly want to see this musical, it should also attract audiences who may need reminders of how harsh a world at war can become.

From Here to Eternity plays through May 5 in the Cabot Theatre at Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are available at broadwaytheatrecenter.com, or by calling the box office at 414-291-7800. The show runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.