A Winning War

One of the true ironies of gorgeous theater is that it often blooms from a dark soil of deeply felt grief and great human tragedy. More than 620,000 Americans died in our civil war. April 12, 1861 marked the first official gunfire of this conflict, the war on which the Alley's new and richly engaging musical The Civil War is based.

As the lights go soft over Douglas Schmidt's majestic and expressionistic set of shattered plantation pillars and broken brick walls, Frank Wildhorn's fine music begins. The lonesome sound of a single mouth harp rises from the shadows. The whole theater is filled with a vapory, ephemeral sadness; it is the kind of tender anguish that accompanies history; that accompanies memories that are real only in our imagination. For though Americans are still trembling in the aftershock of institutionalized slavery and the Civil War, a somber voice-over quotes Walt Whitman, who warns us that "Future years will never [really] know the seething hell and the black infernal background of this war.... The real war will never get in the books."

Whitman is right, of course. We can never capture what "really happened." But with their production of The Civil War, authors and creators Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy attempted to trace their way back in time following a highly charged map of ancient letters, grave markers and photographs. They have also helped shape a new future for the very American art of musical theater.

Gone is the narrative story line, the main and minor characters, the obligatory dancing. Instead, these writers have created a sort of collage of archetypal characters, emotional moments and musical styles, which succeeds wonderfully in capturing -- though thoroughly romanticizing -- an enormous and defining moment in our country's history. The music of the show is often thrilling. The cast is beautiful to listen to and lovely to look at. And the technical elements are subtle, inspired and absolutely magical.

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So much of the music in this new production is so stunning, Wildhorn must have had actors lined up through the boroughs of New York just for a chance at these tunes. "Tell My Father," sung with the sweetest tenderness by Ron Sharpe, is a sad lament from a soldier lying dead on the battlefield. "Tell my father," he sings, "when you can; I was a man." This plaintive tune makes clear that this war happened to and between families. In fact, many of the more heartbreaking ballads have to do with the familial destruction the war and slavery itself brought about. "If Prayin' Were Horses" -- a duet sung between a slave wife (Cheryl Freeman) and her husband (Michel Bell) who are soon to be parted on the auction block -- may be one of the most searing and chilling songs to come out of a musical in many years. And Freeman sings from the absolute well-deep bottom of her soul, while Bell's great low bass voice will send shivers through anyone with a pulse. Not every song about family is completely successful. "Five Boys," sung by Mrs. Bixby (Beth Leavel), a mother who lost five sons in the war, is a dead-on perfect idea, but a not yet fully realized song, especially when compared with the other songs about familial loss.

The gospel sound of "Someday," which marks the coming of Emancipation Day, got even the most dressed-up Alley audience members clapping their hands (even some of the Confederate soldiers were tapping their feet while "The Enslaved," as the program puts it, sang to the rafters). And "By the Sword/Sons of Dixie," sung by both Union and Confederate soldiers, practically shook the house; the ensemble is terrific, and Jeff Lams's music direction is fine.

Most every performer was exciting, though Linda Eder as angel and nursemaid and Keith Kirk's wildly energetic Frederick Douglass were especially memorable.

The set inspires both awe and sorrow. Mark Wendland's faded gray and blue costumes smartly suggest the period and the conflict while not bogging down the production with big hooped skirts or silly shining swords. The best costumes, however, might be on war pimp Autolycus Fell (played with delicious nastiness by Jesse Lenat) and his whores (Beth Leavel and Hope Harris). Fell struts around like a reject from a Shaft film in blood-red snakeskin pants and a dirty leather coat lined in crimson satin. His whores wear the skirts they've patched together from scraps found on the battlefield, including Old Glory, hiked waist high so as better to show off their dirty white bloomers.

Wendall K. Harrington's projection design created some of the most moving moments of the night. As the soldiers die and fight and struggle, Matthew Brady's Civil War photos appear on a scrim that floats down from the sky. Howell Binkley's lyrical lighting pushes the effect of the photos even further. Oh, for more of those transcendent moments in the theater, when sweetly falling snowflakes made from flecks of angel-white light can articulate our collective yearning (especially in this age) for all that Lincoln symbolized.

Inevitably, changes will be made before the show reaches Broadway, though even as it stands now, Frank Wildhorn is bound to have another success. But for once, those New York Yanks will have to wait their turn.

The Civil War runs through October 11 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 228-8421. $31-$46.

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