From the moment Norm Lewis marches onstage at the Kennedy Center, the star of “A Soldier’s Play” exudes discipline and dignity.
Thus Lewis’s gravitas elevates the tour of director Kenny Leon’s inspired Broadway staging, which claimed the Tony for best revival of a play for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. After a brief run this month in New Haven, Conn., Roundabout Theatre Company’s touring production officially opened Thursday night at the Eisenhower Theater.
It’s something of a gamble for the Kennedy Center to place a challenging play in such prime real estate during a holiday season dominated by musicals and other family-friendly fare (even if “Wicked” is just a quick broomstick flight away, next door in the Opera House). So it helps that Leon livens the proceedings with a kinetic musicality, juxtaposing the boot-stomping rigidity of soldiers marching in step with the loose-limbed exuberance of hymnal intonations. Having a veteran of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” showing off his soothing baritone, as Lewis does in a solemn song shortly after intermission, also makes for quite the ace in the hole — even if this tidy play would run smoother as a one-act production.
Leon elegantly handles the flashback-heavy narrative with the help of savvy lighting from Allen Lee Hughes, who fixes a warm glow on characters in the present day and a pale hue on events from the past. Those flashbacks are the foundation of Fuller’s precise script, in which Davenport probes the murder of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee) by questioning soldiers from his unit about their temperamental superior. With an endearing grin one moment and a sadistic snarl the next, Lee — a member of “A Soldier’s Play’s” original off-Broadway cast four decades ago — masters the duality of his tough-loving character.
Although Lewis and Lee loom large, the actors whose characters populate the rest of the barracks (Sheldon D. Brown, Tarik Lowe, Howard Overshown, Will Adams, Branden Davon Lindsay and Malik Esoj Childs) also earn their stripes. Brown brings hypnotic vocals and a sensitive soul to C.J. Memphis, the guitar-playing private who stars in center field for the unit’s baseball team. Lowe plays the hotheaded Pfc. Melvin Peterson with deep-seated resentment. Overshown ably portrays one private’s guilty conscience, and Childs imbues another with palpable grief. As Capt. Charles Taylor, the White officer impeding Davenport’s investigation, William Connell adds depth to a character whose empathy doesn’t stop him from casually spewing racism and condescension.
Derek McLane’s rustic set, featuring two tiers of wooden scaffolding, makes an imposing backdrop to the insular tale. But considering that Fuller imbues his straightforward procedural with big ideas about the cascading consequences of oppression, the grandiose setting feels apt. It’s no wonder an actor of Lewis’s caliber enlisted for this tour — all these years later, Fuller’s potent words are still worth fighting for.
A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller. Directed by Kenny Leon. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. With Matthew Goodrich, Alex Michael Givens and Chattan Mayes Johnson. About 1 hour 50 minutes. $45-$135. Through Jan. 8 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.