KNB - the musical
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 14, 2008
KNB is billed as "the romantical, comical, nautical musical"; writer/director Christopher Carter Sanderson has also described it as "a romantic musical comedy set in the global war on terror." And it is, indeed, exactly those things; and without a speck of irony or disrespect. What Sanderson has accomplished here is something that I wouldn't have guessed was possible in these detached times of ours, and that is to give the War in Iraq its own This is the Army, a Broadway-style musical mascot full of irreverence, cheer, and melody that pays tribute—without idealizing, sentimentalizing or, most important, politicizing—the achievements of the young men and women who serve the United States in our armed forces.
KNB stands for Kuwait Naval Base, and that is where the members of the Naval Reserve Boat Unit who populate this show are likely bound. For now, though, they are at an American naval base, where they undergo training and drills. In the opening number, they admit they're here, above all, because "We Need the Money."
We quickly meet our protagonist, a likable Petty Officer (Third Class) named Batteaux whose fiancee has already shipped out to the Middle East with her unit. The chief of this unit has made Batteaux his scapegoat under the false belief that Batteaux is having an affair with his wife; he's making the young man's life hell. Attractive female Seaman Lane emerges as a possible love interest for Batteaux. And meanwhile, two other members of the unit, Heckler and Kotch, are trying to write a musical, in hopes that it will be picked up by the USO and keep them from going overseas. Batteaux, naturally, becomes their leading man.
The show proceeds in a succession of quick scenes, some of which advance Batteaux's story, and most of which feature a socko musical number (often ostensibly something from Heckler & Kotch's show). KNB shines in this department. With a company of 23, it possesses a chorus as large as or larger than most Broadway musicals, and choreographer Erin Porvaznika and director Sanderson use their man- and womanpower impressively. I was stirred by the a cappella singing of the national anthem near the start of the show, and then thrilled by fancy footwork in choral numbers like "The Goodbye Waltz," "The 11 O'clock Number" (featuring a kickline), and "Fraternization Polka" (yes, there is a polka).
Sanderson is the show's composer/lyricist, and most of the songs in the show pay homage to a great classical musical theatre/film tradition (e.g., Fosse, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gene Kelly, etc.). There are really only two or three that cross the line into pastiche, including the delightfully pertinent "OSRMN" (I won't tell you what that stands for; it sends up shows like [title of show]). My favorite song is probably "Boatswain's Mate," a lively blend of Gilbertian patter and sea chanty.
The cast is led by Glenn Seven Allen as Batteaux, who sings, dances, and acts with grand finesse. The dancers are generally terrific; some of the singers, though, strain to be heard in the admittedly oversized Schimmel Center for the Arts. Standouts include Brett Hunter Levenson as Kotch, Daryl Brown as the company CO, and Matthew Wrather, who, in addition to dancing, is a featured pianist in a couple of numbers.
Sanderson's direction is splendid; he moves his large cast as seamlessly and swiftly here as in any of his trademark outdoor Gorilla Rep shows, and he trusts and engages his audience's imagination to add the invisible trappings to a bare bones production. The show's lyrics and book are the only relatively weak spots, creatively; with revision (or possibly the addition of a collaborator), they could be brought up the high level of the tunes and staging. And then KNB will be ready for its next deployment.