The idea of using the Civil War as a backdrop for a musical is not as far-fetched as it originally seems. After a visceral gut response of “Huh?” comes a more open-minded, “Why not?” which may have been the creative stages of writers Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy to create, design and orchestrate this Tony-nominated medley of songs. After answering such basic questions, I can imagine the creative team diving in to create a song-cycle with an eclectic mix of rhythms, styles and lyrics reflecting sentiments of the time and everyday people’s perspectives, as well as the still resounding words of orator Frederick Douglas and touching observations of Lincoln himself. The cast is dressed in modern casual attire, jeans, sporty leather here and there, colorful empire style dresses, suspenders-a total mix. Multimedia plays a large role with historical scenes, images, and settings projected on a giant screen front and center throughout. With these visuals in place, the next question for the writers should be, “Okay, so now what is it?” to which they don’t seem to have a good answer. A collection of musical numbers does not a musical make – and that’s okay. It’s still entertaining as a kind of hybrid musical review, which skims the surface of the sentiments during this country’s astounding fomentation, while featuring some of the most talented singers in the metro region.
Similar to the cultural groupings in Ragtime, the racially mixed cast members are often depicted along racial lines to express specific historical and personal sentiments. For example, the lyrics of one number reflect the sentiments of the Dixie Confederates or “the boys in grey,” and capture the feelings of young men, often still learning the basic facts of life, but bound and determined to fight to the death to honor their homeland, symbolized by the threadbare uniform. The songs exposed how the cultural divide in this land still runs deep. The loud, raucous, rockabilly style of the music, the actors waxing on about the love of the Confederacy, under the projected image of the confederate flag, which was likely intended to jump start a good time also has the potential to stir up latent sentiments of abuses perpetrated by segments represented by that population – I for one was surprised with my own level of discomfort during some of the passages.
Next, the African American actors took the stage to present the other side of the story, the inhumanity ingrained by generations of slavery, the early glimpses of being thrust into freedom. And throughout, visuals of African American cultural icons including Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington were projected as part of the chronology along with their urgent and fervent words of freedom. In an interesting nod to the poignant site of the Ford’s Theatre, for several songs the actors turned to address Lincoln’s flag draped seating area which was eerily backlit in a golden yellow glow when his words were spoken.
The up-tempo songs carry the show along with the remarkable showmanship of the performers, including the rocking Civil War Band perched center stage on an elevated set. The outer edge of the stage’s wide arc revolved for additional effect moving actors into and out scenes which generally worked, but also had a tendency to distract from the story when the moving mechanism screeched annoyingly.
Besides, with stellar vocalists committed to interpreting such interesting material, you don’t need a lot of fancy stage gimmickry to make things work. Local favorites Eleasha Gamble, Will Gartshore, and Stephen Gregory Smith are all powerhouses and work their usual magic delivering exquisite phrasing, depth of expression and all around virtuosity. They were absolutely matched with equally exquisite vocalists in the ensemble and standout performances by Timothy Shew, Michael “Tuba” McKinsey, exuberant renditions by Kingsley Leggs and touching passages by Kellee Knighten. Unfortunately, although some of the falsetto tones hinted at being achingly beautiful, the designers seemed intent on pushing every song into big and loud territory rather than wistfully touching, so that’s what was delivered throughout.
The montage of photographs at the end depicted a whirlwind of African American leaders throughout modern history, from politicians Shirley Chisholm, to civil rights leaders, to musicians, to movie legends winning coveted Academy Awards – it’s all over the place. Unfortunately, without placing the various persons in context, the final effect is just a blur of unfamiliar faces without a connection or purpose, again, probably not the intended effect.
The Civil War is a well intentioned attempt to reconcile aspects of the past in order for the country to move forward towards a more unified national destiny. The memorable songs reflect the reality of those who lived and died in the country’s struggle to right itself after unshackling the confines of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The creative designers have made a valiant effort to reflect that horrendous struggle through songs and historical images. The ending scene when all the cast comes out in period attire of both the blue and grey, helps to anchor the story in the style of the day. The message comes across loud and clear as a bugle or clarion call, that though families were once torn asunder, brother against brother, in that great Civil War, we can and will continue to heal.
The Civil War
Written by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, with music by Wildhorn.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.