Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Civil War Christmas: A Musical Celebration"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi


"A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION"

by Paula Vogel
directed by Jessica Thebus
music supervised, arranged, and orchestrated by Daryl Waters

Hannah; Rose; Aggy; Matron … Uzo Aduba
Chester Manton Saunders; Hay; John Surratt; Union Soldier … Chris Bannow
Willy Mack; Walker Lewis; Jim Wormley … Jason Bowen
Decatur Bronson; James Wormley; Philip Ree … Gilbert Glenn Brown
Abraham Lincoln; Walt Whitman; Silver … Ken Cheeseman
John Wilkes Booth; Robert E. Lee; William Tecumseh Sherman;
Raider 2; Mary Surratt; Union Soldier … Ed Hoopman
Mary Todd Lincoln; Secretary of War Stanton; Widow Saunders … Karen MacDonald
Ely Parker; George’s Ghost; Frederick Wormley; Moses Levy;
Louis J. Weichmann; Reverend Brown … DeLance Minefee
Elizabeth Keckley; Mrs. Thomas … Jacqui Parker
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Ulysses S. Grant; Ward Hill Lamon;
Lewis Payne; Raider 1; Burwell; Minister … Stephen Russell
Raz; Anna Surratt; Nicolay; Clara Barton; Mule … Molly Schreiber
Jessa … Alanna T. Logan; Hyacinth Tauriac (at select performances)

STUDENT ENSEMBLE:
Aaron Parker Fouhey; Alice Lyn Hunt; Sarajane Mullins;
Blake Pfeil; Rebekah Vega Romero

CHILDREN’S ENSEMBLE (at select performances):
Grace Brakeman; Oliver Jay; Cameron Kelly; Savannah Koplow;
Lauren Sabbag; Jeffrey Sewell; Abby Spare; Lily Steven;
Amari Veale; Gabriele Lyman-von Steiger; Jonah Yannis

MUSICIANS:
Conductor; Piano … Andrew Resnick
Fiddle … Morgan Evans-Weiler

Walt Whitman wrote that the real Civil War would never make it into the history books; the same pronouncement can be leveled at Paula Vogel’s A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS at the Huntington --- I expected a particular Civil War tale, textured and intimate, similar to LITTLE WOMEN’s opening chapters where frugality and charity lead to just rewards; a human-drama to comfort and inspire today’s Americans facing a bankrupt Christmas 2009 thanks, in part, to their own unpopular war. Instead, Ms. Vogel has spun an American tapestry that unravels as it unfolds, blending real life personages with fictional ones in the RAGTIME manner, with disturbing amounts of rewriting, dismissing and homogenizing along the way --- ideal Huntington material! --- considering how traumatic the Civil War was with brother fighting brother, I am appalled at how Ms. Vogel has reduced everything to FeelGood-ism where there is little hate and certainly no bloodshed, where Mrs. Lincoln is a laughable cow while Mrs. Keckley is a sacred earth-mother, where a black child wanders throughout in freezing weather and ends by setting a star atop the White House Christmas tree, where Booth and his conspirators are comic bumblers, where a white Quaker enlists with a black troop and never has to fire a gun; where soldiers on hospital cots look whole and healthy, where an enlisted Jew (played by a black actor) dies offstage and re-enters to scamper up the aisle back to his Lower East Side; where a black sergeant is about to shoot an innocent Rebel in revenge for his wife being kidnapped by Confederates but relents and makes friends, instead --- this is evasion, NOT transcendence! --- the evening concludes with the Lincolns and their rainbow-friends celebrating Christmas 1864 and the end of the war (which didn’t happen until Spring 1865, along with a particular assassination); the black sergeant gets to bid the audience “goodnight” --- shouldn’t the President have had that honor? As author of a play about the Lincoln conspiracy, I take offense at Ms. Vogel’s Mrs. Surratt (in reality, a staunch Confederate supporter) not realizing she is talking to Mrs. Lincoln on the street and at her boarder Louis J. Weichmann, whose testimony in court helped to hang Mrs. Surratt, being revised as ein Dummkopf, played by the same black actor (another conspirator, George Atzerodt, was the one from Germany); both characters disappear without closing that particular book --- come to think of it, the sergeant and his wife have no reunion scene, either; they’re just together at the finale (but how?), and does Mrs. Keckley ever reclaim her Christmas tree? As I’ve said: unraveling… Had Ms. Vogel picked one thread out of so many --- say, that wandering child, looking for her mother --- then she might have woven a truly heartfelt tapestry, and I'd have been the first to shed sentimental tears. Gladly.

(O, what if I rewrote Pearl Harbor where the Japanese bomber pilots change their minds and go home, or not have the boy Astyanax thrown off a cliff in THE TROJAN WOMEN, or keep Mother Courage’s children alive and bullet-free? The Huntington audiences might like that…would you? O, shall I comfort you by having today’s troops drop their weapons and shake hands with their victims/enemies, just like that (snap fingers)? (Actually, such a thing happened: that famous Christmas armistice of World War One, in the trenches --- but for one day, only, then back to BANG-BANG.) O, how I've had it up to HERE with artists who pussyfoot around racial prejudice in America, starting with playwrights who symbolically castrate themselves for past oppressions, down to politically-correct directors who patty-cake, and concluding with today’s minority actors who cannot (will not?) evoke the repression and body rhythms of their ancestors, and when black actors are cast as white racists to remove any sting from ‘em, well, I pity the schoolchildren being exposed to such travesties posing as history lessons.)

Meanwhile, I was pleased to see four local actors standing shoulder to shoulder alongside imported ones rather than merely carrying spears, uh, rifles, and there is some fine ensemble singing but Jessica Thebus’ whiz-bang direction, taking her cue from Ms. Vogel’s narrative, makes everything an ever-turning kaleidoscope; I felt nothing for these cartoonies because they were never allowed to take root, for long. But that is my two cents regarding A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS --- the Huntington audience didn’t mind having their own buttons pushed so calculatingly.

"A Civil War Christmas: A Musical Celebration" (13 November-13 December)
HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY
Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

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