A Warhorse in Step With the Times
Friday, March 24, 2006
The bedraggled soldiers of the rebel cause stumble off the smoking hulk of a Confederate train in one of the final scenes of "Shenandoah," the 1975 war-on-the-home-front musical that Ford's Theatre has revived with impeccable timeliness.
"Has it all been for nothing, sir?" one of the bandaged, shell-shocked men in gray asks his commanding officer.
The audience knows, surely, what reply is expected. Every bloody, intractable war provokes the same question, just as every long, ugly war has a way of making the question sound as if it's being asked for the first time. In any event, it's not a bad thing at all to hear voices raised at Ford's in harmonious challenge to the idea that patriotism always means toeing the bellicose party line.
"Shenandoah" might not be a musical of the first rank: Its characters -- aside from its hero, a crusty paterfamilias played appealingly by Scott Bakula -- are as narrow as Melba toast, and the score by Gary Geld and Peter Udell is sprightly only in fits and starts. But bringing it back at this moment to wartime Washington -- and, of all places, to historic Ford's -- proves to be a welcome, gloved-hand slap at militarism. It's a sly bit of subversiveness, packaged as family fare.
Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who staged the stirring deaf-and-hearing adaptation of "Big River" last spring at Ford's, squeezes just enough juice out of "Shenandoah" to give the revival real flavor. Given the choppy libretto by Udell, James Lee Barrett and Philip Rose, this is no easy feat. The sluggish spoken scenes leave you in silent countdown to the next song, and the relationships among the members of the Anderson clan -- Bakula's Charlie and six sons and a daughter -- exude warmth but not much wit.
Still, Calhoun, set and costume designer Tobin Ost and lighting designer Michael Gilliam perform the admirable service of dressing the Ford's stage in the vibrant aquamarine and magenta dawns and dusks of the Shenandoah Valley. Through song, too, the director draws out the musical's pretty, folksy colors, in the virile athleticism of such numbers as "Next to Lovin' (I Like Fightin')" and the infectious melodiousness of "Why Am I Me?," sweetly delivered by the cast's youngest actors, Kevin Clay and Mike Mainwaring.
The spotlight, most of the time, is on Bakula's Charlie and the manly sort of individualism he embodies way out yonder on his Virginia farm. The Civil War is raging, although not for Charlie and his boys. Charlie is a quiet, high-minded loner, almost Lincolnesque in his moral courage -- he was played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1965 movie on which the musical is based -- who flatly refuses to allow his boys to be turned into Confederate cannon fodder. When he ruminates at his wife's grave about his determination that his sons not be "made targets" for enemy weapons, the words have the ring of the dissent in other times.
As "Shenandoah" would have it, however, no man remains an island when the rivers run red. If Charlie won't let the boys go to war, the war will come to them, and the musical becomes a tally of the calamities that befall the Andersons as the ills of the world sully their haven. To leaven the bloodshed -- like "Sweeney Todd," this is a musical with a body count -- "Shenandoah" provides glimpses of the fragile happinesses of insular family life, the sort that war can quickly shatter.
The set hammers home that point. An immense, empty picture frame hangs front and center with a placard, "The Nation Mourns" (which also was the title of a poem composed to memorialize Lincoln's assassination). At times it is used literally to frame a soldierly tableau, or the outlines of a church, house or train tunnel. As an omnipresent fixture, however, its function becomes murkier at points in which a domestic scene is staged inside the frame, or an actor chooses to recline against it.
Bakula, though, invests a clarifying sense of dignity in this starring turn, a role that once upon a time won a Tony for its originator, John Cullum. The role's new inhabitant seems a little distant at times, but that's right for a brooder like Charlie. Bakula was a singing actor before his telegenic charm landed him on TV's "Quantum Leap" and "Enterprise," and he more than capably fulfills the vocal demands of the part, with soliloquies that recall Billy Bigelow in "Carousel."
If few in the large supporting cast make an enduring impression, that partly might be attributable to an interchangeable quality in the personalities: Call it a case of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"-itis. (One of the "Shenandoah" boys' only distinguishing characteristic is that he likes to read.) Of the brothers, Rick Faugno's Nathan is the most effervescent (I think). Megan Lewis's Jenny is a peppy, engaging creation, too.
"Shenandoah" attempts to say something not only about the moral character of one man, but also of an entire nation. By the end of the evening, war has pretty much exhausted the Andersons and the land they love. It's a show that's made, it seems, for the battle-weary everywhere.
Shenandoah, music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell, book by Udell, James Lee Barrett and Philip Rose. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Sound, David Budries; fight coordinator, David Leong; musical direction and orchestrations, Steven Landau. With Aaron Ramey, Andrew Samonsky, Garrett Long, Noah Racey, Richard Frederick, Richard Pelzman. About 2 1/2 hours. Through April 30 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit http:/