Review by Gail M. Burns
There is nothing more terrifying for an artist than trying to follow up on a mega-success. Composer Duncan Sheik and poet/lyricist Steven Sater hit the theatrical stratosphere with their musical adaptation of Spring Awakening in 2006, winning Tonys, Grammys and Drama Desk awards. While neither are one-hit wonders – they have had other major and minor successes alone and in collaboration – there has been an extraordinary amount of hype and hope attached to the world premiere of Arms on Fire. This could be their Next Big Thing! If Sheik and Sater were hoping to sneak it in under the radar by premiering it at the tiny, off the beaten track Chester Theatre Company, neither the Company nor the national media had any intention of letting them do so.
Arms on Fire is not a musical but a “play with music.” A four-piece band, barely visible on stage behind a scrim, play nine musical numbers and some incidental music while James Barry and Guiesseppe Jones perform a series of scenes about two men – Smith (Barry) a washed-up, never-has-been singer and heroin addict, and Ulysses (Jones) a formerly successful Honduran disc jockey who has immigrated to New York City and now works in a nut packaging plant. All the action takes place in the present in Ulysses’ tiny studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where Smith shows up one night having been lured in by the voice of a female singer on an LP that Ulysses is playing.