Metro Weekly

‘Private Jones’ is a Thrilling Musical Adventure (Review)

Signature's moving world-premiere musical "Private Jones" marches boldly into a deaf soldier's odyssey at war.

Private Jones: David Aron Damane, Alex De Bard, Amelia Hensley, Johnny Link and Emily Steinhardt -- Photo: Christopher Mueller
Private Jones: Johnny Link — Photo: Christopher Mueller

Beautifully written, composed, and directed by Marshall Pailet, and executed with panache and military precision, Signature’s Private Jones poses a thrilling musical adventure in story and in form.

The company’s first world-premiere musical since the pandemic, produced in association with Goodspeed Musicals, shrewdly deploys sign language, practical sound effects, and silence, along with Pailet’s compelling score, to shape the world of Private Gomer Jones, a deaf Welsh sniper in World War I.

Inspired by a real-life WWI marksman who was deaf since infancy, Private Jones comes firing to life in Johnny Link’s feisty take on the role.

Gomer, who loses his hearing as a child, is gutsy enough at 16 to fake his way past British Army recruitment officers so he can join up and fight alongside his fellow Borderers from Breconshire.

Backed by the production’s robust ensemble, he sings, bursting with hope, in “The South Wales Borderers” of answering the nation’s call. Moments later, innocence still guides him, as Gomer and company march through “Part of the Sound,” his vow to not simply soldier in step, but truly prove his value in combat.

Private Jones: Alex De Bard, Johnny Link and Erin Weaver -- Photo: Christopher Mueller
Private Jones: Alex De Bard, Johnny Link and Erin Weaver — Photo: Christopher Mueller

Link ably captures Gomer’s boyish voice and outlook, and evolves the character in his dark, humbling descent into the trenches of war, though it’s not the performer’s singing that carries the characterization.

Distinctly pleasing voices do surround him — notably, David Aron Damane, lending his deep baritone to Gomer’s father and other roles, and Leanne Antonio as Army nurse Gwenolyn, leading the transporting ballad “Every Soul’s a Soul.”

Later reprised as “Every Soldier,” the intoxicating melody ripples like water, floating Gwenolyn’s simple wisdom, that every soul is a soul. At a time when Gomer is learning the cost of taking a life, she helps him reconsider the value of saving someone, even a wounded stray dog.

Pailet’s production gains a lot of mileage from the sentiment of a boy and his dog, thanks in large part to persuasive puppetry, but the show’s not overly sentimental. It’s downright brutal at times, powerfully evoking the horrors of war — soldiers riddled with bullets, survivors forced to use bodies as cover — though the carnage is rendered with astute, artful understatement.

The deaths onstage aren’t bloody or graphic, but the impact is profoundly felt. Gomer’s losses cast long shadows as his odyssey carries him into combat in the fog-laden trenches so vividly realized in Christopher and Justin Swader’s scenic design.

Luckily, for Gomer, and for us, he finds friends in the battalion who lift his spirits, like Erin Weaver’s rascally charmer King, and Deimoni Brewington’s delightfully daft Bailey, who provide laughs and warm camaraderie at the Front. As a much less friendly fellow soldier, Edmund, Vincent Michael brings appropriate tension to the drama, and soaring vocals to “Fantasy,” among the score’s most bright, romantic songs.

Throughout, the company’s voices combine gorgeously for dynamic interpretations of full-cast numbers like the rollicking “Bastards” and cleverly staged “Cleaning a Gun (It’s Easy).” Misha Shields’ choreography can look disjointed or busy, but the performers get to where they need to be in an epic narrative populated by troupes of nurses and infantry.

Meanwhile, Pailet keeps the story’s shifting perspectives well-coordinated to portray myriad dimensions of Gomer’s very particular experience as a revered marksman who can’t hear the gunfire. Private Jones would have us all at least contemplate the silence Gomer inhabits, to better understand the sounds of being deaf, and the devastating noise of war.

Private Jones (★★★★☆) runs through March 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Va., with a Pride Night performance on Feb. 23. Tickets are $40 to $99. Call 703-820-9771, or visit

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