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Love and war

Locally penned WWI love story is destined for big things

For All That left reviewer speechless. Photo courtesy of Centerstage Theatre

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Centerstage's For All That is a phenomenal show. I left the theater wondering how I could possibly review it when it left me speechless. In many ways, this performance is the best thing I've seen on stage in years, and the marvel of it is that it was written by Centerstage Artistic Director Alan Bryce.

For All That is a love story set during World War I. It is a musical unlike any I've ever seen but with echoes of such masterworks as Johnny Got His Gun (the novel), Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. Bryce gave a hint of what was to come when he ended his curtain speech by saying, "At this point I usually say ‘enjoy the show' - but it's not that kind of show."

Immediately thereafter, a single actor came onto the smoky gray stage in a scene of horror I will not describe, which soon gave way to a joyful scene of villagers dancing and singing. Similar unexpected changes happened throughout the play, all perfectly timed.

The story begins in a small village on the Isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland. As the play opens, Andrew (Joshua Williamson) has come home and hopes to marry his old sweetheart, Mairi (Katherine Jett), but during the time he was off at college, his brother, Donald (Cooper Harris-Turner) has fallen for her. When Donald proposes marriage, a surprised Andrew reluctantly steps aside.

And then war is announced, and everyone's lives are ripped apart.

As brothers and best friends are sent off to war, Andrew declares himself as a conscientious objector. He is rejected by family and sent to prison.

The local boys go off to war and fight in the Battle of the Somme, one of the most horrendous battles in the history of warfare.

The story is complex and beautifully structured. Bryce, a Scot raised in England, based it on true stories taken from the War Diary of the Seaforth Highlanders.  He spent a year researching. His research took him to the Isle of Lewis and the Somme battlefield. He visited the Imperial War Museum, spoke to leading historians of the period and interviewed scholars, soldiers, ministers and musicians.

The production is excellent in every aspect, from Craig Wollam's gritty set, with its raked stage fronted by battered and rusted tin, to Christina Barrigan's stunning lighting, to Janessa Styck's period costumes, to music by Joshua Zimmerman and John Forster that ranges from lively folk jigs to tragic laments.

The acting throughout, from the large ensemble to the principle characters, is excellent. Williamson (whom I couldn't look at without thinking of Alan Cumming) plays the misfit Andrew with brilliant sensitivity. Randall Scott Carpenter is terrific as Mairi's brother, Malcolm, who starts off as a loveable, highly entertaining goofball and is changed by the war into a confused and emotionally scarred man. To a slightly lesser degree, Harris-Turner's Donald goes through a similar transformation, and both actors go through these intense changes compellingly. Jett portrays a subtle spectrum of emotions as the loving, strong and often conflicted Mairi, as does Kate Witt as Donald and Andrew's mother.

Among the musical highlights are the boisterous "Lewis Work Songs" by the entire cast, the lusty "Mademoiselle From Armentieres" by Donald and the soldiers, Harris-Turner and Jett's beautiful duet on "Ae Fond Kiss," and Bridgid Abrams as the lusty French barmaid singing "C'est Impossible." The most stunning of all is Carpenter's heart-wrenching solo on "Black is the Sun."

For All That should go from here to major theaters across the land. I advise you to see it while it is here.

FOR ALL THAT, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 24. Additional 2 p.m. show on May 16 and 23, Centerstage at Knutzen Family Theatre, 3200 SW Dash Point Road, Federal Way. $10-$30. For information call 253.661.1444 or visit www.centerstagetheatre.com.

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