Capsule Stage Reviews: A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten, Hamlet, Marie and Bruce

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration It's very earnest down by the banks of the Potomac on Christmas Eve, 1864. Extremely earnest. In this musical from Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) and Daryl Waters, who arranged the numerous period carols, war anthems and pop tunes of the era, 16 most capable actors portray dozens of characters, but they're all suffering from personal loss and trying to find their way back to normal. No one is happy in the District of Columbia. Why this musical from 2008 (much revised until and after its Broadway mounting in 2010) should be subtitled a "celebration" when everyone is sick to death over war, personal demons and how cold it is on this particular night is known only to the authors. The war rages on during this blustery December night in 1864, but the tide has finally turned for the North. Savannah has fallen. In a jubilant dispatch, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman (Andrew Hager) presents the city to President Lincoln (Joe Kirkendall) as a Christmas gift. That's the last time we see Sherman. We quickly glimpse Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at the musical's beginning, but they pass like a figment, or a casting director's nightmare. People come and go so quickly here. An entire panoply of Civil War lives, some real, some fictitious, crisscross and intersect in Vogel's epic. While the troops on both sides hunker down in the freeze, escaped slave Hanna (Crystal Rae) trudges north with her young daughter (Leila Moon and Liliane Moon alternate in the role); mortally wounded Jewish infantryman Moses Levy (Zack Varela) is comforted by Mary Todd Lincoln (Susan Shofner); nurse Clara Barton (Susan Draper) barks orders and instantly disappears; poet and hospital orderly Walt Whitman (Mr. Kirkendall in the worst fake beard this side of prehistoric cinema) soothes the sick; Southern sympathizer and, months later, assassin John Wilkes Booth (Jon L. Egging) plans a Christmas Eve abduction of Lincoln; the president's cabinet members preen; Mrs. Lincoln's black dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley (Rachel Dickson) is haunted by her dead son (Brandon Balque); stalwart free black Decatur Bronson (Shawn Hamilton) pines for his lost wife, vowing to shoot every Confederate, even clueless teen Raz (Brittany Halen); and Quaker pacifist Chester (Jonathan Teverbaugh) miraculously survives numerous Confederate raids and has serious mother issues. Vogel adds a horse and a mule for comic effect, the only real laughs in this solemn telling. There is genuine pathos in Civil War and moments of real emotion — Shofner's Mrs. Lincoln, perilously close to a nervous breakdown whether shopping for that new holiday custom from Bavaria, the Christmas tree, or reliving her beloved child Willie's death by typhoid; Dickson's noble and nobly suffering Keckley, whose constant refrain is "put your hands to use"; and Hamilton's powerhouse, majestically elemental Decatur — these vivid portraits enlarge and enhance Vogel's overly plotted, cluttered waxworks. Although the orchestration is threadbare, the musical breathes during its songs. Shofner's "Silent Night," sung to the dying Levy, is accompanied by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; Hamilton's defiant "Yellow Rose of Texas" morphs into a heartfelt ballad; Dickson's soft yet resilient "There Is a Balm in Gilead" is plea and prayer. "The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself" is the play's mantra. A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is all empty mantra. It's the antique music and fine performers who put the celebration into it. Through December 22. Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. 713-524-6706. — DLG

Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten If there hadn't been a little show on Broadway called The Lion King, this world premiere musical fairy tale from Carlton Leake (book, music, lyrics), scrumptiously realized on stage by director and choreographer Patdro Harris, would probably seem a lot better than it is. Comparisons, however unfair, are unavoidable. Colorful, always lively, and acted by veterans and newcomers to the Ensemble with more conviction than warranted by the material, Djembe still comes across as a decidedly poorer relation. The story dooms the musical. Needlessly convoluted and padded, the plot uses two young girls with magical powers as protagonists, along with their two mothers, who also have magical powers, added to a powerful king who goes into exile when his wife dies in childbirth, a forest watchman who talks to spirits, and, of course, an evil sorceress, the king's sister, who usurps the throne and makes everybody's life miserable. The animals, who peek out of the foliage, are absolutely adorable (the brightly plumed tropical bird has a tail of straw; the giraffe rises high off to the side of the stage; and the elephant, though surprisingly small in stature, has a proboscis with a life of its own). But these wonderful veldt creatures, like their human counterparts, are filler. They appear, make some noise and go back into the jungle. It's a terrible waste of evocative characters. Think what riches The Lion King mined out of a warthog and a hyena. Oh, yes, Christmas gets thrown into this melange in the mythical land of Abahu, which has something to do with a drum not being played — I'm hazy on the details because nothing in this musical carries any weight. Motivations misfire, characters do their own thing regardless of what's expected and nobody seems to care, least of all the writers. That is not to say there isn't charm on view at the Ensemble. Young Lauren Chanel Bogany (Nika) and younger Taylor Nelson (Blinah), the girls with some sort of magical power, are real troupers and showstoppers. Triple threats, they can act, dance and sing. They easily hold their own against some of Ensemble's most nimble players. More mature, Christina Alfred, as Nika's mom, is a strikingly handsome stage presence who can put across a power ballad like "Purpose" with the chops of Lena Horne, or put depth into her character, which is, at best, hazy and indistinct. Chiseled, tall and regal, Timothy Eric draws appreciative whoops and moans of approval from the audience as king of Abahu. Anthony Boggess-Glover, as T-Baum, the kingdom's spirit of Christmas, doesn't need anything like a script to hold the audience spellbound; he can do it all by himself. The same is true of Detria Ward, one of our favorite Houston theater treasures. All she has to do is walk onstage as evil Kalisha and our eyes follow her. With her snap delivery and soigné attitude — that saucy Mae West "Beulah, peel me a grape" attitude — Ward delivers without breaking a sweat. As Blinah's mom, Roenia Thompson brings her warm, embracing talents to a thankless role and lights up the stage. Director/choreographer Harris supplies enough life and physicality for a decade of musicals with dance numbers that are beautifully crafted, exciting and audience-rousing, just what this musical needs. With loving assistance by scenic designer James V. Thomas and costumer Reggie Ray as well as lighting by Eric Marsh, Djembe looks great, like a storybook come to life. But the whole thing just doesn't come together. One resourceful little girl with special powers with one mother who has special powers would be sufficient for any musical. Through December 22. 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. — DLG

Hamlet The fledgling troupe Trebuchet Players tackles Shakespeare's Hamlet, adding a fresh slant by using elements of "steampunk" in the costuming, referencing elements from the 19th-century industrial revolution. The very good news is that Hamlet is portrayed by Aaron Echegaray, in an exciting, vivid characterization that captures the self-confidence of a prince, the wit of an intellectual and the showmanship of a circus ringmaster. Echegaray uses the set's carnival atmosphere to provide a bravura performance with authority and power. Jonathan Gonzalez plays Claudius, new king of Denmark, a regicide, and one might expect a sense of deep evil hidden by a velvet glove, but Gonzalez fails to convey this. Cheryl Tanner plays Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, who as bride to the new king has weathered the storm, but she simply looks unhappy. Clarity Welch as Ophelia has carnival clown makeup around her eyes, so the choice to follow through and vary the usual ethereal characterization, portraying her as earthy and robust, is wise. Michael Raabe plays Polonius as a man of action, despite the platitudinous nature of his homilies. Wade Consoulin is excellent as the ghost of Hamlet's father. Rosencrantz (Chelsea Curto) and Guildenstern (Sam Martinez) enter joined at the shoulder as though Siamese twins, a visual joke that works well on their first appearance but less well when it's repeated. Laertes is portrayed by a female actor, Sarah Heddins, who is athletic and poised. Julie Oliver plays the gravedigger, a sly humorist, but shows no joy in her wit. Kathy Drum directed, adding vitality to many scenes, but the carnival mood ­escaped most actors. This revenge play has the force of a juggernaut, fueled by the remarkable, stunning performance of Aaron Echevaray as Hamlet. Through December 14. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 318-423-0281. — JJT

Marie and Bruce It might be cold and blustery outside Catastrophic Theatre, but the weather can't match the frigid, numb-to-the-bone atmosphere inside the bedroom of Marie and Bruce. In Wallace Shawn's icy, day-in-the-life dissection of marriage (1978), wedded bliss is a phantom, as bleak as any shade this side of Dante. Dreams are quashed, expectations never fulfilled, happiness an illusion. We meet Marie (Tamarie Cooper) and Bruce (Charlie Scott) in bed in their comfy New York apartment. Bluesy jazz plays in the background. The bed seems too small for them, already confining the couple. Marie, her arms folded with her hand on her cheek, stares at the lump next to her. It scrunches around, she hits it. Not hard, but with purpose, as if to stop the thing under the covers from getting any closer. She stares out at us. Street noise echoes softly. This isn't the first time she's stayed up awake, we think. The lights go up and the play begins. And what an aria of invective to start the show. Marie's had it, she's really had it with Bruce. In a bald declaration, she lays it all out, a harpy with a vengeance. In the nicest description of her hubby, she calls him a "goddamned, fucking irritating pig." Other distasteful epithets are spewed at the opposite side of the bed. Bruce doesn't hear her, of course, or pretends not to. No doubt he's heard all this before. Even the part where she says she's leaving him. Breakfast is the same ordeal. His pajamas smell of urine; he's not a real man. "You nauseate me," she says to his face. Bruce smiles wanly behind his magazine, calls her darling and offers to make coffee. He kisses her lightly, which takes her by surprise. In another monologue, as she changes out of her rose-patterned housecoat into a vivid print dress for a party later that night, she tells of her day. She pines for a close encounter with a randy dog and then falls into a magical sleep in a nearby garden, filled with bright flowers and insects all abuzz. Marie is more alive in her reverie than in her mundane existence with Bruce. Cooper holds us spellbound as she spins these alien but specific memories, casting a hypnotic spell. The play comes alive, too. Strange as these tales are, their very weirdness holds us close. What will happen next? Well, nothing, actually. We're thrown back into the couple's recurring jousting as we attend the swanky party, which could be right out of a mediocre Woody Allen movie. Fatuous, these people talk but say nothing, oblivious to their empty yakking. That's the point Shawn makes, but it's as obvious as the guests themselves. After the party, the topic of leaving him occurs again while they dine at their favorite restaurant. "I don't even like're so mockable," she taunts with more pity than anger. Bruce handles the abuse with the same sangfroid as always, eating his pasta in great gulps along with soft giggles of laughter at her melodramatics. Slowly, the background restaurant chatter dies away. There is no sound. Marie has the last word as she describes going home after dinner, putting Bruce to bed and sinking deep, deep into sleep. We know where we will find her tomorrow morning: sitting up in bed clutching her knees as she stares at us and then at the lump who shares the bed, and her life, pondering whether to leave him. Reprising their roles, as does director Jason Nodler, from the 1999 production by Infernal Bridegroom — Catastrophic's forerunner — Cooper and Scott discover every crumb of hurt, deception and unrequited love required for Shawn's mordant play to take effect as well as it does. They tread lightly between comedy and out-and-out tragedy as they dissect the everyday little shocks that a relationship, marital or otherwise, is forever heir to. No one really listens, Shawn says; no one pays attention. But can you blame them, when what's hurled at them is so vile, so hurtful, so truthful? Through December 14. 1117 East Freeway (Main at Naylor). 713-522-2723. — DLG


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