Theater Review: Peter Marks on Ford's Theatre's Musical 'The Civil War'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

If the teaching of American history were reconceived as a series of '80s television variety specials, the curriculum would no doubt require something on the order of Ford's Theatre's "The Civil War."

The stately theatrical concert, directed by Jeff Calhoun, is a slickly produced musical slog through the themes in chapters 7, 8 and 9 of your eighth-grade textbook. The Quest for Freedom. The Pain of Separation. The Wages of Conflict. Over the course of 90 minutes, 17 actors warble 19 numbers by composer Frank Wildhorn ("Jekyll and Hyde"), most of them in the thoroughly predictable, period-appropriate key of solemn.

Calhoun's production is a streamlined version of a 1999 show that folded after less than three months on Broadway. This new presentation perhaps gives a decent option to the charter bus trade. As theater, though, it's a blown opportunity: You wait in vain for an explosive moment of emotion or insight to emerge from the all-too-familiar testimonials to the war's goals and toll.

What unfolds instead is a personality-deprived tribute show, filled with safe songs engineered for knee-jerk responses. Some of the tunes remind you of the syrupy, soft-focus anthems devised by the writers at the end of a season of "American Idol." Here, the numbers, conveying the influences of spirituals, folk and country, have titles such as "River Jordan" and "The Glory" and "Father, How Long?" and "Last Waltz for Dixie." And the lyrics, by Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, sound just as lazily derivative.

"Tell him how I wore the blue/Proud and true/Like he taught me," go the words of "Tell My Father," sung by a dying Northern soldier. "Tell my father/Not to cry/And say goodbye."

Tobin Ost's set reinforces the notion of the variety-show format. A six-man band sits on a platform wedged between two curved staircases that lead to a second level on which cast members can be deployed like a celestial chorus. Above their heads flashes a sophisticated videoscape by Aaron Rhyne that includes everything from Mathew Brady war photographs to a shot of, yes, President Obama. (You get a sneaking sense he's going to be showing up in many more inspirational theatrical cameos.)

Between songs, recordings play of actors reading the speeches of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Hovering over stage left, the replica of the box in which Lincoln was assassinated is illuminated as his words are intoned. Then, like guest stars on a telethon, the actors descend the stairs or emerge from the wings for their big, open-throated moments.

As with everything else in "The Civil War," the actors are dressed (by Wade Laboissonniere) in a way intended to lay history at our doorstep. So the men wear T-shirts and jeans under Union and Confederate army coats and the women sport revealingly low-cut tops as they croon ballads to their absent soldier boys. (It is the odd show, however, in which the finale's impact relies on a dramatic costume change.)

Wildhorn's tunes regularly challenge the singers' upper registers, and several of the fired-up performers -- particularly Eleasha Gamble, Sean Jenness and Elliot Dash -- belt with crowd-pleasing vigor. But they supply the only red glare in a show that otherwise reduces a war to a vanilla pageant.

The Civil War, music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, David Budries; video design, Aaron Rhyne; vocal arranger, Dave Clemmons; music director, Jay Crowder. With Aaron Reeder, Bligh Voth, Darryl Reuben Hall, Kellee Knighten, Will Gartshore, Stephen Gregory Smith, Matthew John Kacergis, Michael Lanning, Sarah Darling. About 90 minutes. Through May 24 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit or call 202-397-7328.

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