A CurtainUp Review
A Civil War Christmas
By Elyse Sommer
The setting is the last Christmas Eve of the Civil War which gives a somber and quite Dickensian aura to Vogel's sweeping saga. And sweep it indeed does: from the battlefields of northern Virginia populated soldiers of all colors . . . to Mary Todd Lincoln hunting down a Christmas tree and visiting a wounded Jewish soldier . . . to John Wilkes Booth botched first attempt to kidnap the President. . . to a little girl lost while fleeing to freedom with her mother.
This take on the annual American Christmas entertainments can be viewed as a continuation of the Pulitzer Prize winning Vogel's (How I Learned to Drive) long-standing exploration of American history as well as something of a follow-up to her earlier Christmas play about family trauma The Long Christmas Ride Home. It's a multicultural mashup of British pantomines and church pageants, with enough plot strands to rival one of Charles Dickens' novels.
A Civil War Christmas is likely to have a fruitful life as an annual holiday show, though not as a year-round commercial show on Broadway, as was the case with two other alternatives to typical musicals presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Peter and the Starcatcher and Once. Yet it is another example of NYTW's penchant for presenting unique and enjoyable musical hybrids that fit the large stage of this intimate theater like the kid gloves that in A Civil War. . . are Abraham Lincoln's 1864 Christmas present to his unstable wife.
Director Tina Landau has done a terrific job of weaving the many plot threads and characters into a production that bustles with energy and vivid stage pictures. On the down side, with the actors narrating their own and each other's roles this tapestry is so complex that it's a bit difficult to get hold of the separate and interwoven stories, and fully appreciate the cameo appearances of Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant.
As indicated in the production's history in the program, Vogel has researched all elements of her epic vision of the Civil War's final Christmas as meticulously as Doris Kearns Goodwin did in the book that served as the basis of the new Spielberg film Lincoln. However, Vogel's portrayal of the Lincolns is quite different from that film, with Mary more the high strung, spendthrift. Elizabeth Keckley who is a minor charactor in the film's huge cast, figures much more importantly here. Yet the presidential couple as well Keckly and the rest of the characters in this panoramic Christmas eve illustrate timely parallels between America's changes and conundrums then and now.
While it takes most of the first act to get the actors' shifts in and out of their multiple roles sorted out, the key stories become clearer and more emotionally involving after the intermission. This being a Christmas story, the dominating plot thread about the little lost girl ends happily, as does the saga of Mary Lincoln's lost Christmas tree. The lost child powerfully symbolizes a country that has lost its way and is engaged in a desperate struggle to find it again. The scene in which Mrs. Lincoln has the men delivering the big tree move it this way and that, is another pointed metaphor for our moves from the political left to right and back to find solutions —, and coming close to losing everything.
If A Civil War Christmas has a major flaw it's an excess of ambition. Ms. Vogel and the versatile ensemble manage to give many of the abundant characters vivid, full-bodied life cast. and handle the required shifts in their role, as well as explanatory commentary with great fluidity. Alice Ripley dazzles in her main role as Mrs. Lincoln. Karen Kandel is very fine as dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln's friend who like her mourns a lost child. Other standouts include Bob Stillman's Lincoln. Jonathan David is especially moving as the mortally wounded Jewish soldier Moses Levy. However, the cast is so large that the continued appearance of new characters (not to mention a few four-legged ones) that there are times when neither playwright, director or actors can avoid a sense of unwieldiness and loss of momentum. This might be aoided by trimming some of the peripheral stories might help.
The sound and look of the piece couldn't be better. James Schuette has made excellent use of the wide stage to create a two-level rough-hewn wooden set that expedites the scene to scene action. Toni-Leslie James's period costumes are appropriately somber but with nevertheless quite sumptuous. gowns for the female characters. Scott Zielinski's lighting adds to the authenticity and aura.
re Music supervisor and arranger Daryl Waters and music director Andrew Resnick deserve a standing ovation for the organic way the music is interspersed and performed. The melding of a Kaddish with "Silent Night" is slightly unseltling but it does honor Ms. Vogel's all-encompassing vision of multiculturalism as a means towards a catchall melting pot. The song that comes closest to coming off a musical style show stopper is "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
For theater goers looking for holiday fare that's intellectually nourishing, A Civil War Christmas, offers a satisfyingly tasty and enlightening entertainment. Unless and until made a bit more young child friendly, recommended for ages 12 and up.
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