The set-up: In 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, you can tell it's serious business because the characters don't smile often. Sixteen most capable actors portray dozens of characters, but they are 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 (and 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. There's not much celebrating going on. But there sure is a lot of preaching and heaps of political correctness. And lots of "meanwhiles" in the exposition: as in, "meanwhile, back at the White House," or "meanwhile, back at the front." This folksy, down home attitude smacks of artifice.
The execution: The war wages on during this blustery December night in 1864, but the tide has 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 personages, 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 infantry man 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) 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 Decatur Bronson (Shawn Hamilton) pines for his lost wife, vowing to shoot every Confederate, even clueless teen Raz (Brittany Halen); 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. (That is, until you see that incredibly stupid fake beard that Kirkendall is forced to wear as Whitman. Since Kirkendall also plays a very solid, grave Lincoln, you assume at first it's old Abe dressed up like Pappy Yokum in a Victorian showboat melodrama, out on the town to bring comic relief to the wounded. Nobody laughs at Lincoln, so the appallingly amateurish crepe whiskers elicit a few shocked titters from the audience, but the damage is done; the musical's heart-on-its-sleeve unravels.)
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There is genuine pathos in Civil War and moments of real emotion from the cast - 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, "put your hands to use" is her constant refrain; and Hamilton's powerhouse, majestically elemental Decatur - these vivid portraits enlarge and enhance Vogel's pop-up picture book storytelling.
Although the orchestration is threadbare, the musical breathes freely 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 both plea and prayer; and the final chorus, "I Heard the Bells," expresses Vogel's intentions with more urgency and awe than all her intricately plotted, cluttered waxworks.
Ryan McGettigan's simple wooden platform, intentionally unfinished - like Vogel's America, a work in progress? - is a nightmare for the actors, who must tread cautiously to avoid a broken ankle. Macy Lyne's period costumes, at least not overly fussy, don't distract; and Michael Mertz's musical direction, abetted by a few actors who play the drum, guitar, and fiddle, is first-rate. I blame director Troy Scheid for not seeing what a disaster Whitman's beard is and not fixing it post-haste, but she keeps Vogel on emotional track, if not at brisk pace. Only judicious cutting could speed this pageant. The verdict: Four months after the musical's events, April, 1865, the Civil War was over, and Lincoln was dead. Vogel doesn't stint on the looming heartbreak. America's trauma is very much on her mind, but for a brief December moment in Washington, D.C., all is well. "The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself" is the play's final 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. Christmas has a definite whiff of gunpowder and personal loss in Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas, playing through December 22 at Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706. $20-$39.
Update: The show has been extended through December 29.