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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration
Long Wharf Theatre

Also see Fred's review of The Seafarer

Civil War Christmast
Ora Jones and J.D. Goldblatt
Paula Vogel's deep-rooted and ambitious A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, enjoying its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through December 21st, offers a fascinating interface of history and fiction as the playwright brings us to Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve in 1864. Fourteen actors take on more than eighty roles through Vogel's imagination and Tina Landau's inspiring, lyrical direction and choreography.

Abraham Lincoln (Jay Russell) is one of many figures who are key to the proceedings. Vogel provides other actual historical personages, such as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Diane Sutherland), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ulysses Grant (Drew McVety as each) ... actor Guy Adkins plays John Wilkes Booth, Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman. Elizabeth Keckley (Ora Jones) is a former slave who becomes Mary Todd Lincoln's closest confidante. Moses Levy (J.D. Goldblatt) is based upon the actual Benjamin Levy, a Jewish soldier during the Civil War. Mrs. Lincoln cares for the injured Levy late in the play.

There's a beautiful and heartfelt story involving fugitive slaves Hannah (Bianca Laverne Jones) and her little daughter Jessa (either Faith Philpot or Malenky Welsh). Hannah is desperate to find the girl for whom she searches for much of the time.

One moment leads to the next and, at times, one of the pieces transpires alongside another. The visual depth, created by designer James Schuette, adds dimension and tone. The staging area is comprised of rough-looking wooden boards and platforms. Toward the rear, one sees barren trees, coats and hats hanging. The Potomac River, which divided North from South, is pivotal. Scott Zielinski's lighting, with delineation of a specific scene or broader view of the entirety, is of great benefit as it determines mood. Toni-Leslie James' outfits are absolutely period appropriate.

Andrew Resnick sits at an electric piano with his back to the audience and occasionally beats a rhythm with his right hand upon a single snare drum. He is an excellent musician and his unobtrusive presence and contribution truly enrich the evening.  During some spirituals, actors accompany with acoustic guitars. The play opens with a version of "Silent Night" and some selections such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and "O Christmas Tree," and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" are familiar. Daryl Waters does a fine job with his musical arrangements and orchestrations.

Vogel's play possesses thematic relevance and Civil War Christmas is most inclusive. Goldblatt plays both the Jewish Moses Levy and Native American Ely Parker. Vogel also features James Wormley, proactive leader in the African-American community, and Decatur Bronson, a black man who was a Union sergeant. Actor Marc Damon Johnson takes on those multiple roles. Susannah Flood is excellent as she inhabits Raz, a boy from the South. The versatility of the entire cast is quite impressive.

The playwright provides so much during the course of two and one half hours that it's virtually impossible to track and absorb it all. If Vogel elects to trim and/or modify, that might make for a tighter show and eliminate rambling. Yet, the jam-packed nature of her play challenges the viewer to make connections, to absorb as much as possible. While the drama is undeniable, I was never moved to tears.

Vogel also provides some comedy; for example,  actors mime and cavort as horses and a mule.

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is boldly inventive theater, warm and affecting, which catches attention early. The show continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through December 21st. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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