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Theater Review

Little Theatre Fights Losing Battle in 'The Civil War'

By Michael Toscano Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page PW04

The musical song cycle "The Civil War" seems to stretch on longer than the war itself.

The Prince William Little Theatre production is a hodgepodge of three dozen mostly banal songs carelessly strung together in a weak attempt to create a tableau depiction of the war, and they are sung here by mostly undistinguished performers. It is remarkable that composer Frank Wildhorn, who more successfully gave us "Jekyll and Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," was unable to find much meaning or emotion in the most dramatic and darkest chapter in American history.

The music is a nonstop run of bouncy, bright and generic pop tunes, some of which have a bit of gospel or bluesy coloration, and a few ballads. But they all sound as if they have been run through the same rock-oriented synthesizer, and they fail to evoke the Civil War era. There is also an astounding lack of historical context and emotional depth. Perhaps fearing the wrath of modern historical revisionists who claim issues other than slavery as the Southern cause, Wildhorn and his collaborators in the book and lyrics, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, are so evenhanded and politically correct that they portray the two sides as moral equals, as if one side was not fighting to protect a traitorous, cruel regime that thrived on human oppression.

Oh sure, the slaves are there, but they are present as a separate, third party to the war, suffering, but with their generations of bondage and blood not tied to the secessionist side. The rebel battle pennant and the Stars and Stripes both wave triumphantly and gloriously over all. It's as if Wildhorn and company wrote a show about World War II and portrayed the Jews as some vaguely associated "collateral damage" and not victims of Nazi genocide.

"The Civil War" is not really a musical. It's actually a themed concert, and that is how director Susy Moorstein stages it. Performers file on to the mostly barren stage, face the audience in generally flat, side-by-side groupings and sing their solos, duets or ensemble numbers, usually squinting against the harsh glare of spotlights, before shuffling off again. Civil War-era photographs are projected onto a much-too-small screen hung behind them in a weak effort to evoke period atmosphere. Each song has a person's name attached to it in the program, as words are supposedly taken from letters and speeches of the era, but little attempt is made either by the writers or the performers to create characters around the names, resulting in little emotional effect.

One exception is Dan Bellotte as Barksdale, a Confederate soldier who laments his tattered clothing in "This Old Gray Coat." Bellotte compensates nicely for his singing limitations by layering on the vocal inflections and persona of a crusty farmer gone to war.

It is striking that with 36 performers onstage, so few are able to successfully carry a tune or act. Flat, grating notes continually blow off the stage like so much aural shrapnel. What little dialogue exists is intoned with awkward gravity, as if in a high school pageant. The words from Abraham Lincoln's stirring, theologically intense second inaugural address ("With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.") come booming out of speakers, recorded in stentorian, radio-announcer tones that flatten their meaning and divorce them from the homespun, haunted man with the reedy voice who first spoke them.

Credit must be given to the Little Theatre for trying something new and different, even if the show it picked flopped on Broadway, and for good reason. Wildhorn reworked the show for a second life in local theaters, but the attempt fails and "The Civil War" remains a lost cause.

"The Civil War," performed by Prince William Little Theatre, continues through Feb. 12 at Osbourn Park High School, 8909 Euclid Ave., Manassas. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a matinee Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 703-330-7796. For information, visit www.pwlt.org.

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