History’s habit of repeating itself comes with a twist in Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, now playing at Ford’s Theater. The play is essentially a museum piece made of a series of songs set in the Civil War that are mashed up with the words of Abraham Lincoln and the vocal talent of a mostly local acting cadre. Does this sound eerily familiar?
It should, since this production is a revamped reprise of Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War, performed at Ford’s Theater in 2009 and on Broadway a decade before that to a chorus of universal pans from the critical community. Complaints about the play on Broadway and in DC had the same tenor: while the series of songs in the play were strong though difficult (each telling a small piece of Civil War life in a contemporary musical theater style), the show lacked any semblance of story, a cohesive cast to match the songs, and a timely takeaway message to keep the audience present and involved in the production.
So why, with all of these problems working against the show, would Ford’s Theater decide to program this play 6 years on? There are some good reasons. First, Ford’s is making a strong marketing push for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, so they made a strong choice of a play that puts the focus on Lincoln.
They’ve also picked a play that will snap up history buff tourists flooding into town for the Cherry Blossom Festival throughout the play’s long spring run (It runs through May 20). But I think that the real reason Freedom’s Song is making a reformed reappearance on Ford’s stage is that this new version has solved many of the problems plaguing the original. Freedom’s Song has been reforged into a fine play that is less about a cynical or simplistic cash grab and more about the power of theatrical storytelling to make distant history feel present and relevant.
Here’s the game-changing concept: Freedom’s Song is not just a concert-style revue of Civil War-based songs; now it follows individual characters’ journeys through the trials of the Civil War. First is a pair of married couples (one couple from the North, one couple from the South) who are separated by the war, with husbands going off to fight and wives staying at home. While Freedom’s Song isn’t revolutionizing gender roles with this storyline (hard to blame a show set in the late 19th century for this), the stories of these characters are heartbreaking and surprisingly well fleshed out, given the modicum of dialogue they are assigned in the show.
Another character we follow is a fugitive slave, played by the profoundly talented Kevin McAllister, who escapes bondage to join the Union Army over the course of the show. McAllister’s songs and story give the show a spine for audiences to follow and passionately illustrate the earth-shattering changes wrought by the Civil War. His song “Father How Long?” which filled Ford’s huge space with McAllister’s potent baritone/bass voice, moved me (and the rest of the audience) to gasping, shocked, and tearful silence that broke to thunderous applause as he humbly left the stage. Freedom Song is worth the trip if only for that must-experience moment.
Director Jeff Calhoun has also organized a coherent and impressive set of design elements to fill out the world that these characters occupy. Designer Tobin Ost’s set is an enormous and oddly proportioned house, severely tilted to express the jarring turmoil of the Civil War, but not so alien that it feels uncomfortable in the space. Projections by Aaron Rhyne often occupy the back wall of the house and help with filling in the awkward spaces. While sometimes projections and set can clash when done by different designers, Calhoun has coordinated them well, with projections informing the play without seeming overbearing and set supporting the world without staying too static. For costumes, the performers begin the show as “storytellers” wearing street clothes (or “rehearsal clothes” as we say in the theater business), but then transform into believable enough historical characters with a variety of historical costumes crafted by Wade Laboissonniere with truly solid wig and makeup work from Anne Nesmith. There’s another, final transformation which I won’t spoil for you, but it is one that really wraps the whole play up well and shows the canny insight Calhoun has with this play.
The actors themselves generally do well as storytellers through song, and it helps that Ford’s has scooped up some cream of local musical theater talent for this show. Tracy Lynn Olivera as the Confederate Private’s Wife uses well-honed country-influenced vocal techniques to reach into audiences’ hearts and squeeze; she’s moving whenever she takes the stage. She contrasts well with her duet partner Carolyn Agan, whose lighter, more waifish style gently brushes but is equally effective. The rest of the cast is fine in their acting through singing, but the score really challenges the upper limit of their vocal range, making for some awkward group resolves and proving too much for the cast to maintain clear diction in some numbers. Only the epically talented Nova Payton seems comfortable in the range that the score asks, but she gets to show off her voice in the opening “Prologue” and the closing “Someday”.
The music isn’t the only element of the show that could have used a more thorough reworking. The program lists David Leong as the “Military Choreographer” and Stephen Gregory Smith as the Dance Captain, but doesn’t peg any individual with the responsibility for movement in the show. That became evident as a problem as many songs were performed in tableaux or were accompanied by movement that felt uncoordinated or inappropriate for the song.
FREEDOM’S SONG: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE CIVIL WAR
March 13 – May 20
511 Tenth Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $27 – $62
Mondays thru Saturdays
Tickets or call 202. 347.4833
Some of the songs were inappropriate for their context as well, not in the sense of vulgarity, but in that the tone didn’t match the lyrics. In particular, the full company number “Judgment Day” about the demoralizing effect of the war on commanders was almost amusingly peppy, and “Old Gray Coat,” which would be categorized as a charm song about a Confederate’s trusty uniform, was placed amid the emotionally downward moving final third of the piece. I understand that the adaptors may not have wanted that whole third to be full of downers, but “Old Gray Coat” felt very incongruous.
But overall, Freedom’s Song’s new twist on an old play is an excellent lesson to Artistic Directors (and to critics) in DC. I went in to this play expecting an overpatriotic, hand-on-heart schlockfest with very little story, and this Ford’s Theater production proved me wrong. While the play doesn’t paint emotion with a brush as much as it slathers feeling on with a roller, the picture that it paints is generally coherent and moving. Congratulations go to adaptors Richard Hellesen and Mark Ramont for remaking a play that I can recommend as enjoyable not only to out-of-town visiting relatives but also to the urbane locals who are taking their families to see a show.
Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War . Composed by Frank Wildhorn . Directed by Jeff Calhoun . Featuring Carolyn Agan, Todd Adamson, Jessica Lauren Ball, Ryan Burke, Ashley D. Buster, Samuel Edgerly, Christopher D. Harris, Gregory Maheu, Matthew G. Myers, Ines Nassara, Tracy Lynn Oliver, Michael J. Mainwaring, Kevin McAllister, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Nova Y. Payton, Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy, Chris Sizemore, Darren Ritchie, Matthew Schleigh, Stephen Gregory Smith and Jason Wooten . Scenic Design: Tobin Ost . Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere . Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam . Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne . Sound Design: David Budries. Orchestrator and Music Advisor: Kim Scharnberg . Music Director: Michael T. Sebastian .Wig and Makeup Design: Anne Nesmith . Military Choreography: David Leong . Production Stage Manager: Craig A. Horness assisted by Taryn Friend . Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.