By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When President Dwight David Eisenhower was interviewed by historian Stephen Ambrose for his eventual official biography “Eisenhower: Soldier and President,” he made a startling statement. “Andrew Higgins was the man that won the war for us,” Eisenhower claimed, “because we had no boats anywhere at the outset of the war that could land men on an open beach.”
That inspirational quote eventually brought Ambrose and his friend, fellow historian and University of New Orleans vice chancellor Gordon “Nick” Mueller together. The two unveiled a plan to honor both Higgins and New Orleans, the city he called home. After all, New Orleans was where Higgins built those boats that landed on D-Day in Normandy and established a beachhead for the largest armada ever gathered, a flotilla that turned the tide for the Allies.
Eventually, the D-Day Museum they founded and dedicated to the important work of Higgins Industries, took on other areas of interest regarding the war and its mission broadened to include the arc of the entire war. Thus the National World War II Museum was born from more humble beginnings and began to expand into the massive complex that now includes the Freedom Pavilion, the Boeing Pavilion, the Louisiana Pavilion and the performance space BB’s Stage Door Canteen.
With such a pivotal figure as Higgins to inspire them, it would only seem natural that the museum would bring about a play to honor on its own stage the man who was the spark for its very creation. Playwright and Tulane Theater and Dance Department professor emeritus Ron Gural with non-credited collaborators on the museum’s staff (The Landing Party), was called upon to cobble together an informative, yet entertaining piece on the man. The result is Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War.
Gural, who was a notable force behind the New Orleans Shakespeare festival, is a heralded director of scores of productions and an award-winning actor. Rather than produce a fluffy bit of pablum intended to relate facts about Higgins’ life and career, this piece carries with it gravitas and several emotional turns on stage for the six actors who portray Higgins and others.
While the work is not Shakespeare, some of the phrasing and poetry within its lines owes much to the influence of the Bard. There is singing and dancing within its two acts, but it would not be proper to call this a musical. As the songs do not advance the plot or realize the characters’ motivations, it would be more accurate to describe Higgins as a play with music.
In fact, the songs, which are spectacularly rendered by the ensemble, are really devices to connote the year during which a significant milestone or historic event occurred during the life of Andrew Jackson Higgins. Thus, the first numbers (“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “Shine On Harvest Moon”) are, respectively, from just before and after the turn of the 19th century when Higgins was born and raised in far off Columbus, Nebraska and later accompany his journey to the logging camps in Wyoming, where he started his business career.
Songs advance the timeline from World War I (“Over There”) and his move to the Gulf Coast (and, later to New Orleans). Later the selections announce the country’s plunge into The Great Depression (“Pennies from Heaven”) and then into the war effort with several of the more noted World War II numbers made famous as rallying cries and morale boosters such as “Rosie the Riveter.”
Leading the cast of performers with a dynamic and forceful presence is Robert Pavlovich, a veteran, award-winning performer, who is an adjunct member of the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and a regular performer with Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane.
Just as it was fortuitous that Higgins manufactured the boats that made D-Day possible, it is only through an alignment of the stars and an opening in his academic schedule that Pavlovich can be in New Orleans to carry off this pivotal role at this time.
Pavlovich makes for a truly believable Andrew Higgins, a man with vision who was foremost a businessman with a thirst to make his fortune. He imbues him with an almost father-like quality, cheering his staff on, stirring them to improve his company’s production: “More power. More speed. More precision,” he encourages.
There are several actors in New Orleans who might have been able to carry off this role, but Pavlovich is an absolutely fantastic choice by managing director of entertainment Erica Jensen and Shane Lecocq, who served as the show’s director and choreographer. The audience gets behind the character of Higgins as he rolls up his sleeves to get the final designs right for what became known colloquially as the Higgins boats or by their military designation of Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVPs). Higgins Industries manufactured more than 20,000 of those specialized amphibious craft, which could transport 8,000 pounds of cargo, 36 men or a combination of one tank and 12 men.
Included in the cast is Kaleb Babb, a young performer and New Orleans native, who does double duty by also working as the costume designer for the show. Sean Riley solidly rounds out the male complement in the cast.
Chloe Vallot, Kathleen Moore and Hayley Bowden play a variety of ingenue roles, each singing solos or coming together to execute perfect three-part harmony as they channel the Andrews Sisters (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).
While Lecocq’s choregraphy is simple and not overly complicated, it does elevate the production with movement that enhances the dancing and singing.
Music director Tom Hook laid down the basic background tracks, but the entire production is uplifted by the live piano playing on stage by Harry Mayronne. The live background music he provides on piano adds musical punctuation to the actor’s actions on stage and brings the other music into the present, giving the illusion that all the music is being performed live.
Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War opened on October 11 at BB’s Stage Door Canteen in the National World War II Museum has a running time of an hour and a half with one 15-minute intermission. It continues through November 10 with showtimes on Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 1:00. Tickets for the shows, which can include dinner on Saturday evenings or brunch on Sunday morning and afternoon, can be purchased here.