Set during one of the most tumultuous periods in our country’s history, Paula Vogel weaves several intimate stories of soldiers, escaped slaves, would-be kidnappers and the country’s first couple into a comforting evening of holiday storytelling, A Civil War Christmas. Director Tina Landau, music director Andrew Resnick and a talented ensemble of eleven tread through episodes of tragedy, racism, frivolity and hopefulness in a display that hints at, while not exactly drawing parallels to, a traditional nativity pageant.
After the actor about to portray the 16th President of the United States (a quietly homespun Bob Stillman) advises us to turn off any post-19th Century devices, the company lines up across the stage, dressed in contemporary clothing, to sing a chorus of “Silent Night” that advises us “All quiet along the Potomac tonight.”
It’s the bitterly cold Washington D.C. Christmas Eve of 1864 and the walls of the theatre are lined with costume pieces that will bring the actors into the period, playing roles based on both real people and fictional ones. The Civil War continues, but the outcome seems obvious to all involved. A rowdy General Grant (Chris Henry) wishes to drink his way into “Christmas Oblivion” while the somber GenerAl Lee (Sean Allen Krill) refuses any comforts for himself not available for his men.
Meanwhile, a runaway slave (Amber Iman) is separated from her young daughter (Sumaya Bouhba) while seeking assistance from the president (We’re told that this is an era when people could just knock on the White House door and demand to see the president. “Back then, the people of the United States were very much the president’s boss.”) while nearby, John Wilkes Booth (Krill) plots to end the war by kidnapping Lincoln.
There’s a cordial encounter between a black Union sergeant (K. Todd Freeman) whose wife was taken by retreating Confederate troops, and a Quaker Union soldier who refuses to carry a gun. The sergeant’s vow to shoot any Confederate he comes across is tested when a 13-year-old Confederate soldier (Rachel Spencer Stewart, playing a boy) is caught trying to steal food for his starving comrades.
There are lighter moments involving Mary Todd Lincoln’s (Alice Ripley) determination to acquire a White House Christmas tree. The tradition had not quite popularized in America at that time.
As the various plots blend and twist, the evening is enhanced with soft and poignant performances of folk songs and holiday music, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song used by the Underground Railroad as a reminder the use the Big Dipper to find the North Star. A very moving scene has Mrs. Lincoln, very aware of her increasing mental instability, in a hospital, trying to comfort a dying Jewish soldier with an a capella singing of “Silent Night.” The scene ends with the ensemble joining her, singing a Mourner’s Kaddish.
While the musical moments are lovely, they contribute greatly to the piece’s two-and-a-half hour length while often not contributing enough dramatically. A Civil War Christmas can certainly stand some trimming, but is nevertheless an accomplished holiday work that celebrates the spirit of the season while reminding us of national issues we’ve yet to resolve.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Bob Stillman; Bottom: K. Todd Freeman and Amber Iman.
In the hands of skilled musical theatre writers, the life and career of Aimee Semple McPherson – the Jazz Age evangelist who became a national celebrity through coast-to-coast radio broadcasts and elaborate pageants in her Los Angeles mega-church – would make a hellava subject for a Broadway musical. John Kander and the late Fred Ebb would have been a natural choice to pen the score, most likely starring an in-her-prime Liza Minnelli.
But the fatal flaw of Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, is that the story of a preacher whose rise to fame excited the country as much as her showbiz services entertained her congregations, is done with barely an ounce of pizzazz. Broadway musicals are sometimes accused of being garish and overdone. Here’s one where the subject demands outlandish over-the-top moments and bookwriter/lyricist Kathie Lee Gifford instead produces a bland retelling of a familiar rags-to-riches story loaded with juvenile jokes (“Some of these Christians are so pious, they just pious me off!”) and sloppy lyrics (“Why am I the fated daughter of such pompous piety? / Why must I be forced to swallow such religiosity?”). The music, by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, with additions from Gifford and McPherson herself, is undistinguished on first hearing and director David Armstrong’s production is considerably earthbound.
What Scandalous has going for it is the extraordinary talents of Carolee Carmello, an exceptional musical theatre actress and singer who is finally getting her name above the title. Playing McPherson from a troubled teenager to a media-target celebrity, Carmello is on stage for nearly the entire two acts, assigned to belt out a parade of power ballads and anthems. Just finding someone who can handle that task eight times a week will narrow down the casting pool enough, but the star is also a superior lyric interpreter; a skill that only highlights the evening’s distinct lack of verbal nuance. Fortunately, Carmello is spared the responsibility of emoting, “Bring me that fiddle! Come, let’s have a diddle!”
The zesty Roz Ryan is handed all the standard clichés that go with playing the former madam turned sassy sidekick role and if any of her material was halfway clever she certainly would have made it delightful.
I’ve been told that George Hearn had at least one solo at some point during previews, but now, save for a couple of ensemble moments, this beloved musical theatre star does no singing at all while playing his two insignificant roles. Now that’s what I call scandalous.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Carolee Carmello; Bottom: George Hearn and Roz Ryan.
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