By Michael Norris Pentagram Assistant EditorAugust 24, 2010
The 2010 edition of the Army's Spirit of America is gearing up for a regional tour that begins in September. Soldiers from this year's cast - including members of the Continental Color Guard, the Caisson Platoon, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Army Drill Team and The U.S. Army Band - gathered in the Fort McNair Fitness Center Aug. 3 for a rehearsal session observed by Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and Military District of Washington Commander Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst and other VIPs. The general watched from the sidelines as Soldiers reenacted the battle of Trenton in stops and starts as producers and directors tinkered with the show.
Spirit of America strings together dramatic and musical vignettes from the various military conflicts the United States has been involved in, from the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam to Grenada and Panama and Desert Storm. A special focus of this year's production is the Korean War, because this year marks the 60th anniversary of the conflict.
Personal accounts, taken directly from Soldiers' letters and diaries, help provide the storyline for a show that is historically accurate and entertaining, with reenacted battles and precision military drills. Some of the music in this year's production include: ''The Star Spangled Banner," ''Stars and Stripes Forever," ''The Army Goes Rolling Along," ''Drowsy Maggie," ''Yankee Doodle" and ''The Boys of Bluehill."
This is Sgt. William Ransom's first year appearing in Spirit of America. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Soldier was suppose to appear in last year's production but got deployed to Afghanistan after auditioning. He plays a Soldier from the Vietnam era in the current production.
''It's a powerful role where the character has to be strong and voice his opinion," said Ransom, describing how the Soldier he plays talks about his tour and how the war is progressing.
He said playing the Soldier is meaningful to him because his father served in Vietnam. Ransom hopes his dad is able to come to Pittsburgh from his home in New Jersey to see the show.
''We're allowed to improvise as long as we get the point across," said Sgt. April Butler from the 289th MP Company, who is a narrator in the show. ''Harry's given us a lot of input," she said, referring to director Harry Bagdasian.
During the Aug. 3 rehearsal, Bagdasian showed Soldiers how to get the most out of their performances. He coaxed one Soldier to project more to make his voice louder while suggesting an alternative line reading to another.
He also tweaked the choreography of a fight scene between Hessian soldiers and Militia men for the Battle of Trenton to make it look more Revolutionary War-era.
Watching from the sidelines, Horst emphasized that safety is an important consideration during rehearsals. ''Those are real bayonets," he said, gesturing to the shiny rifle attachments.
''You're tightening up," Bagdasian tells one Soldier when the two sides faced off in the climactic battle. ''Try to position yourself so you're facing Phebe [the Soldier's opposite number in the mock confrontation]."
''Of all the events that I have staged for the Military District of Washington, 'Spirit of America'" is the most complex," Bagdasian wrote on his website. ''Multiple moving parts and players (on stage and behind the scenes) make it a great logistical puzzle, and I love puzzles. Where else would I get to work with a 60-member orchestra and three composerAcA "arrangers as well as a cast of up to 350 and 4 horses'" he asked rhetorically.
''We want to show what's inside the U.S. Army to the American people," said Capt. Brent Dittenber, the commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment's Alpha Company. ''We're still in the initial phase of trying on ideas and bringing it to the table. We're working out the kinks."
''This is a unique mission," he said, describing Spirit of America as, ''The history of the U.S. Army wrapped up in the history of the United States - all in one place for one hour."
West Point cadet Capt. Adam Bishop helped out as a voice coach for Soldiers at the Aug. 3 rehearsal.
''MDW does something no other part of America does," he said. ''It shows the country what the Army is all about."
''You're able to see, feel and hear what these Soldiers do," said Horst, adding, [Spirit of America] ''informs, educates, inspires and entertains the American people."
''Horst has talked with Accessions Command to find out where they need [Spirit of America] to help," said Lt. Col. Richard Edwards, commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment's 4th Battalion Group. The production is seen as a recruiting tool.
''For more than 30 years, Spirit of America has told the story of the United States Army's history through each and every American generation," states an Army press release. ''[It] presents the true story of men and women who have left friends and Families behind to protect and defend the United States of America. Spirit of America commemorates the brave actions of ordinary men and women who as U.S. Army Soldiers preserve the freedoms we enjoy today."
Spirit of America is scheduled to travel to the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., Sept. 10 and 11; the Bank of Kentucky Center in Highland Heights, Ky., Sept. 17 and 18; and the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., Sept. 24 and 25. Spirit of America performances are free and open to the public, but tickets are required. Seating is limited and tickets to many of the shows have already been distributed.
At present, the only local area performance of Spirit will be held in the District at the annual United States Army Association conference in October. For more information on Spirit of America and tour updates, visit the website www.soa.mdw.army.mil.