The Civil War
The Civil War, now onstage at historic Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, is billed as a song cycle rather than a musicaland the production may be better for that difference. The work apparently has undergone substantial changes since its brief Broadway run in 1999: the cast is smaller and what previously was a book show with a plot and many (perhaps too many) characters is now more of a mood piece.
Director Jeff Calhoun has the benefit of a strong singing ensemble that brings to life a score by Frank Wildhorn (music and lyrics), joined by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy (book and lyrics), that touches familiar chords in a variety of pop and country musical styles. The songs are not memorable, but the performers make them noteworthy.
The show runs 95 minutes with no intermission, using the words of Abraham Lincoln (Michael Goodwin) and Frederick Douglass (Darryl Reuben Hall) as bridges connecting the songs. The costumes by Wade Laboissonniere tend toward modern-day T-shirts, worn jeans and peasant skirts, except for a single striking moment near the end.
The strongest soloists are guitar-strumming Michael Lanning, formidable belter Eleasha Gamble and Kingsley Leggs, who leads the roof-raising spirituals "River Jordan" and "Freedom's Child." Michael "Tuba" McKinney cuts loose in a country-rock ode to a Rebel soldier's "Old Gray Coat," and Sarah Darling gives a quietly heartbreaking performance as a nurse.
The work holds to the basic idea that, far beneath the differences over slavery and questions about the conflicting rights of the states and the federal government, the soldiers on both sides of the conflict might as well have been brothers. Indeed, the same performers represent both the Union and Confederate armies in a counterpoint number.
Tobin Ost's minimalist set centers on the bandstand where music director Jay Crowder conducts the orchestra, with curving staircases on either side and a large screen in the background. The projections on the screen provide the atmosphere, displaying the text of Lincoln's words, photos of soldiers and battlefield scenes, and eventually more recent newsreels guaranteed to stir up feelings of pride about racial and national reconciliation and pull the audience's heartstrings.
The company: Sarah Darling, Elliot Dash, Eleasha Gamble, Darryl Reuben Hall, Sean Jenness, Matthew John Kacergis, Kellee Knighten, Michael Lanning, Kingsley Leggs, Michael "Tuba" McKinsey, Aaron Reeder, Bart Shatto, Timothy Shew, Chris Sizemore, Stephen Gregory Smith, Bligh Voth
Voice of Abraham Lincoln: Michael Goodwin