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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
The Andersons, who own 500 acres of fertile land along the Shenandoah River, are the only family in the region who are not slave owners. Consequently they have decided the war that is boiling around them is none of their concern. Fiercely independent, they keep to themselves and have no tolerance for individuals who claim they owe a debt of gratitude to the state of Virginia or the Confederacy. In Charlie Anderson's mind, the government owes the people; the people don't owe the government. Thus, he refuses to hand over his six sons to go fight a war with strangers he has never met, for a cause he does not believe in and ultimately -- whether Virginia and the Confederacy win or lose -- that will gain nothing for him and his family. One might call Charlie the prototype of the first anti-war activists.
While the Anderson sons argue between themselves whether they should become embroiled in the war, Charlie makes sure that they all continue to work the farm and maintain their combined livelihood. Facing off with his neighbors who feel that he is a traitor for not offering up his sons for target practice, Charlie steadfastly refuses to involve any Anderson unless someone attacks their land or the family. When Union soldiers kidnap his youngest son Robert, Charlie pushes his clan into action and they head off on the boy's trail to save him and to seek revenge. Thus the Andersons become involved, but only to take and defend what is rightfully theirs.
Perhaps due to its political subtext, song style (you don't walk out of the theatre humming any of the tunes) and country music influences, Shenandoah is not mounted too frequently. The lighter first act, where the Anderson's sing, dance, fall in love, marry and give birth to the next generation is offset by the much darker second half, where everyone experiences the stark pain and loss of war. Thus the show is a kind of bridge between Adler & Ross (Damn Yankees) and Sondheim (Into the Woods).
Director Jeff Calhoun and his team have put together a first rate production that incorporates terrific dancing, wonderful vocals and top-notch effects. The production looks and feels larger than the stage at Ford's would seem to allow, while musical director Steven Landau's arrangements and orchestrations are lush and captivating.
Choreographers Jeff Calhoun and Chase Brock's dance sequences are acrobatic and involve some wonderful mayhem. Tobin Ost's scenic design is anchored by an immense picture frame situated squarely center stage which allows much of the action to appear to be a painting come to life. Mr. Ost's costumes are period pieces that give a sense of the military, farming and southern elegance influences within the play. Michael Gilliam's lighting design creates wonderful effects upon Mr. Ost's rolling landscape which is situated at the rear of the stage. Together the two men, along with sound designer David Budries, have created an amazing burning freight train on stage.
The only weak point is with some of the hairstyles -- something that seems to be an ongoing issue with period pieces. While some of the cast have styles authentic to the 19th century, others look like they just walked out of a Northwest DC salon. Perhaps the styles haven't changed in 150 years, but maybe hair just doesn't get the budget or attention other areas receive.
Within the cast, Scott Bakula does a wonderful job as patriarch Charlie Anderson and especially shines on the song "Meditation.". Creating a gruff but obviously loving family man, Mr. Bakula sings his way through a fairly grueling hour and a half first act. His no nonsense demeanor only lightens when he is smiling, thus his interplay with the youngest Anderson son is quite charming. There is an odd directorial choice to have him move about the stage in a lumbering manner, but this would seem to be designed to offset the fact that he seems rather young to be playing the father of a group of six adult children.
Mike Mainwaring as the slave child Gabriel and Kevin Clay as youngest son Robert Anderson provide a rousing rendition of "Why Am I Me?" The entire group of Anderson sons (Rick Faugno, Ryan Jackson, Aaron Ramey, Andrew Samonsky and Bret Shuford) perform some amazing acrobatic footwork while singing the upbeat "Next to Lovin' (I Like Fightin')"
As James Anderson, Andrew Samonsky is the hot-headed son ready to go to war, while Garrett Long is his pregnant and patient wife Anne (who joins Mike Mainwaring to sing the inspiring "Freedom"). The interplay between Megan Lewis and Noah Racey (assertive Jenny Anderson and her shy suitor Sam) is fun during the musical number "Over the Hill". And Mr. Racey also provides some comic relief with Mr. Bakula during their marriage discussion scene.
Filling out the cast are Cherry Harth Baumbusch, Christopher Bloch, Peter Boyer, Evan Casey, Richard Frederick, Timothy Dale Lewis, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Geoff Packard, Richard Pelzman, Stephen F. Schmidt, Anne Marie Sell, and Rachel Zampelli.
Ultimately Shenandoah turns out to be quite a show and is a hit with children and adults. I was sitting near a group of school children and they seemed to enjoy it as much as their parents. So if you are looking for something different, want to celebrate an anti-war stance and love a good show tune, I highly recommend heading down to Ford's.