Also see John's review of The Color Purple
Shenandoah, based on the 1965 film starring James Stewart, is the story of a Virginia widower and his seven children during the early days of the Civil War. Five children are sons of fighting age, but the patriarch Charlie Anderson forbids any of them to enlist, contending that the war doesn't concern them. For most of the first act they're able to maintain a pastoral life as the oldest son prepares for the birth of his first child, the only daughter gets engaged, the youngest son (a pre-teen "afterthought" whose difficult birth ended the life of his mother) gets to play with a slave boy around his own age and the other five – an exceptionally handsome, well-groomed and well-dressed bunch - get to sing and dance in a few numbers. The few intrusions of the War on this idyll – such as a recruiter suggesting the boys should enlist and some horse rustlers threatening to "buy" the family's horses at a deeply discounted price for the Confederate Army – are quickly and easily dispatched. This leaves time for some charming numbers celebrating life and love in rural mid-19th century America. The songs by Gary Geld and Peter Udell are tuneful enough and appropriately folky, but they do little to advance plot or establish character and are entirely too jaunty in light of the advancing menace facing the characters.
The menace becomes real at the end of act one, as the youngest boy, Robert (called simply "Boy" by the family) is taken prisoner by Union soldiers. The entire family, other than the eldest son, his wife and newborn daughter, take off to find and rescue the boy as the act closes. Act two opens with a visit from the neighbor boy Gabriel, who jollily tells the young mother Anne how happy he is that the plantation on which he had worked has been burned to the ground by the Union Army, the "massa" has run off and Gabriel is parentless but free. Fun times, huh? You don't think a ten or twelve-year-old might not be a little traumatized by that sort of stuff? Oh, and though the writers have not yet told us what's become of the rest of the family and Boy, or even how much time has passed since the family left, Anne and Gabriel launch into a song celebrating freedom as "just a state of mind." Excuse me – if you are literally a freed slave, freedom's just a state of mind? Here's another example - the act one number in which the Anderson boys cheerily sing "Next to Lovin' (I Like Fightin')" and engage in some high-stepping choreography that would fit in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, there's no trace of irony or fear that they might soon be drawn into some truly deadly fights. When the bad stuff starts to happen to these well-scrubbed musical theater characters, it seems like a vicious parody of musical comedy, as if Dolly Levi got mugged and murdered on her way to the Harmonia Gardens.
What might the audiences and Tony voters of 1975 have seen in Shenandoah? It opened shortly before the end of America's long involvement in the Vietnam War, and its pacifist theme must have resonated. (Sadly, it does today as well). Maybe the tragedies which befall Shenandoah's Anderson family needed so much sugar-coating to be palatable to Broadway audiences of an era in which the edginess and moral ambiguity of the Sondheim/Prince musicals were still shocking. It's quite likely they also saw a more nuanced and tormented father in the performance of John Cullum than the Marriott production gets from David Hess. He's all strength and determination throughout, just barely letting his widower's loneliness show through, and displaying little doubt about his actions until late in act two, after horrendous tragedies have befallen his family. Even then, though he raises his volume several notches, he fails to show the depth of pain that would logically arise from the wages of the war he tried to avoid. Hess has the stage presence to convince us he's the patriarch his family would follow without question, and his vocals are powerful enough to seal the deal, but his Charlie is simply not interesting enough to carry a show in which his is the only full-developed character.
The remaining cast members are competent, and a special highlight is the rendition of "We Make a Beautiful Pair," sung in a perfect country twang by Jessie and Abby Mueller. The simple set by Thomas M. Ryan suggests enough to establish the locale without compromising the sight lines of the Marriott's in-the-round stage, and Nancy Missimi's period costumes are again quite perfect. I'm not sure director/choreographer David H. Bell could have done anything differently. He might have attempted to suggest a darker undertone beneath the family's false optimism, but I think the perky score might have undone him. In an era where our arts are revisiting the past by showing just how harsh and difficult were the worlds of our forebears, the romanticization of such an ugly period in our country's history really rings false. Still, we can applaud the Marriott for challenging audiences enough to make us consider the human cost of war by reminding us of the last war to be fought on American soil.
Shenandoah is performed Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m through June 24. To reserve tickets with a major credit card, call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.marriotttheatre.com.