As if Abraham Lincoln doesn’t have enough to worry about in December 1864, he’s facing a Christmas gift crisis: The pair of gloves he plans to give to his wife have been accidentally left behind in the summer cottage. No option but to ride out there by himself — even though death threats have spiked and his head of security has forbidden him to go anywhere unaccompanied.
The 16th president’s holiday predicament is just one of many plotlines in “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,” the overstuffed and sentimental entertainment now at 1st Stage. Though written by eminent dramatist Paula Vogel, this seasonal offering is neither memorable nor bold: It’s the theatrical equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas card stapled to a Doris Kearns Goodwin flap copy. Still, director Deidra LaWan Starnes’s lively, engaging production capitalizes on the show’s accessibility and humor, and this competently acted piece will doubtless appeal to theatergoers looking for feel-good end-of-year fare.
Jessica Cancino’s semiabstract set, encompassing a balcony and stairway, creates an epic vibe, and John D. Alexander’s lighting adds emotional charge. Those are the right aesthetic complements for Vogel’s interweaving of poignant and upbeat Civil War narratives, set in Army encampments, the White House and other spots along the Potomac River. As Lincoln (Russell Rinker, all stately amiability) plans to recover the gloves, his wife (Rebecca Ballinger, aptly mercurial) goes shopping with her friend and dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley (Ayanna Hardy, exuding sagacity). Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth (Joshua Simon) and some bumbling co-conspirators try to kidnap the president; a young girl (Karma Price) who’s escaping slavery gets separated from her mother (Billie Krishawn); and a grieving African American soldier (a haunted V. Savoy McIlwain) confronts a boy (Sophie Schulman) who has joined Mosby’s Raiders, the Confederate partisans.
Starnes makes the storytelling both intimate and tonally capacious: A natural continuum seems to link comic sequences (a horse and mule falling in love) with sad ones (a dying soldier) and historical cameos (by the likes of Ulysses S. Grant). The tuneful music, a major element in the production, also figures in the mood shifts. Three onstage instrumentalists interpret atmospheric incidental music and accompany the songs, which include carols, spirituals and historical songs such as “Maryland, My Maryland.” (Music director Markus Williams died shortly before opening night; music direction is now attributed to Williams, Walter “Bobby” McCoy and Leigh Delano. Daryl Waters supervised, arranged and orchestrated music for the original production of “A Civil War Christmas,” at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.)
In one scene, a character compares the guiding star in the Christmas story with the stars that guide slaves on the Underground Railroad. A rendition of the constellation-referencing song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” becomes a stirring meditation on history, holiday and hope.
A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, by Paula Vogel, with music by Daryl Waters. Directed by Deidra LaWan Starnes; costume design, Danielle Preston; sound, David Lamont Wilson; props, Cindy Landrum Jacobs; assistant director, Rocky Nunzio. With Suzy Alden, Demitrus Carter, Tiziano D’Affuso and Gary L. Perkins III. About 2½ hours. $15-$39. Through Dec. 23 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., McLean. 703-854-1856. 1ststage.org.