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The Shop – at Fort Fringe 607 New York Ave. NW

Remaining Performances:

Tuesday, July 20, at 8:45 p.m. Sunday, July 25, at 11:00 a.m.

They say: “Accidental friendships. Unconventional loves. Three sweet-natured guys become soldiers in wartime – and the ones they adore most in the world must wrestle with the age-old conundrum of the ones left behind. A new musical on an ancient theme.”

Derek’s Take: War could not have happened to a nicer bunch of people. But which war, you ask?  In The Poet Warriors, playwright George Purefoy Tilson lets the audience decide, swerving like a cagey palm reader around any detail that might suggest a specific time, place, or event. What’s left is a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of military families, a 17-song epic that shrewdly leaves all controversy at the ticket booth.

The story follows three unlikely couples plucked from the opposing poles of the socio-economic spectrum. There’s Ray, a conservative army brat turned soldier, and Miriam, the Harvard-educated arch-pacifist; Lewis, the son of a sharecropper, and his WASPy wife Jeanette; and Eddie, the orphaned outcast, paired with David, his journalist partner. In another play, these contrasts would have been grist for conflict, but here, they’re papered over to advance a greater theme:  Everyone suffers in war.

From the opening number sung around a flag-draped casket (the moving “Who Was the Man in There”), the score tweaks the right emotional strings even if the lyrics and adjoining dialog don’t always match the music’s depth. The soundtrack veers from somber ballads to rollicking show tunes backed by boot camp-inspired choreography, lending an added energy to a performance that could have been easily stifled by the sweaty and cramped Shop stage. “Git It” is a particularly raucous set-piece that, early on, sets the tone for the effortless ensemble work to come as we follow the players through training, deployment, and the dislocations and tragedies that form the plot’s emotional core.

Not every song hits the mark. “Miriam’s Dream” seems pulled from another show altogether, an endless medley that begins by repudiating war-mongering politicos, segues into a pro-environmental interlude, then wraps up several minutes later with God crooning in a Fat Elvis suit. It’s as close as Tilson comes to making a political statement (on the matter of anti-war advocacy) and is out of sync with the rest of the production. Nonetheless, the cast – Rachel Brook (as Miriam) and Jase Parker (Eddie) in particular – does its best to pull off the sequence and manages to keep the theater engaged.  Musically, the players are no slouches and the layered arrangements allow each several moments in the spotlight.

This egalitarianism gives every character some calamity to deal with, but in the cases of Lewis (who becomes a prisoner of war) and David (who recoils in the aftermath of a refugee massacre), these turns seem hollow and forced. Tilson lavishes more attention on his other characters, but in the end they are meant only to react to events, not shape them. Sure, Ray, Lewis, and Eddie choose to join the military, and Miriam, Jeanette, and David choose to have relationships with them, but no one faces a moral choice that could catalyze an organic onstage development or realization.

The story as a result feels prefabricated at moments, as when Miriam takes up counseling to treat PTSD-afflicted soldiers or Jeanette turns to television writing to cope with the news of her missing husband.  It’s as if the original conceit, establishing no concrete war zone and requiring the audience to fill in the blanks with their own prejudices, was meant to obscure an unwillingness to make a strong argument for one worldview or another.  Whatever the reason, Tilson’s play is a solid entertainment, but one that aspires to be much more.

See it if: You’re pining for an ambitious war-inspired musical devoid of political import.

Skip it if: You prefer character-driven stories focusing on questions of why rather than what.