Christmas Eve, 1864: Abraham Lincoln frets over the present he bought for his high-strung wife, while Mary Lincoln is in a tizzy over a tree. Not far away, John Wilkes Booth schemes to capture the president, a furious black Union soldier vows vengeance on Confederate soldiers for kidnapping his free wife and a young black girl is loose on the frigid streets of the war-weary American capital.
Those are just a few of the strands in Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” which is woven into a beautiful two-hour package at Baltimore’s Center Stage. The show is subtitled “An American Musical Celebration,” but there’s no need to fear a frenzy of sugar-coated fa-la-las. Vogel ingeniously strings together carols, spirituals and Civil War songs while zipping through a collage of stories, each one clear and taut. Somehow Vogel makes room for “Marching Through Georgia,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Silent Night” and the fevered Confederate battle cry that was the 19th-century version of “Maryland, My Maryland” — which, of course, has the same melody as “O Christmas Tree.”
This is the “Civil War Christmas” that was talked about for years at Arena Stage but never came to fruition. The project finally got on its feet the past few seasons in several cities (and at Georgetown University last year), and this area professional premiere marches onto the stage in Baltimore with tremendous discipline and a fascinatingly transparent style.
Director Rebecca Taichman’s approach is to have the actors do everything in front of you, from slipping hoop skirts and great coats over their jeans and sneakers to creating the wonderfully atmospheric sound effects, from train whistles to thunder, on Foley tables tucked in the back corners of the stage. (The efficient costumes and the extremely spare scenic design are by Dane Laffrey.) Choreographer Liz Lerman doesn’t fashion dances — this show never feels remotely like a musical — but you feel her hand as the ensemble of 11 actors pivot from the imagined streets of Washington to outskirts along the Potomac, and so on. You also feel it as, say, one actor plays a frisky horse catching the scent of a nearby mule (played by another actor) in a delightful bit of physical comedy.
The scenes are brisk and the changes come fast, but we never get lost. That’s partly because Vogel’s script is unabashed about announcing place and characters; it’s the kind of show where an actor plays Booth co-conspirator Mary Surratt one moment and Booth himself the next. But it’s also because the well-drilled, splendidly balanced ensemble, smoothly taking on both fictional characters and historical figures such as Elizabeth Keckley and Walt Whitman, moves like a dream — and because Scott Zielinski’s lights always crisply indicate what’s changed.
Music director Victor Simonson is a centerpiece at the back of the stage, underscoring action on piano and accompanying songs that range from soft and prayerful to powerful and desperate, as the wounded and sick get tended to. Individually and in the many choral numbers, the singing is terrific.
Vogel never loses sight of the tensions driving this weary, dangerous historical moment, and while the story doesn’t quite burst at the climax the way you expect it to, it’s still a striking, mature panorama of lost and isolated figures in an embattled landscape. The show has a modern tempo, yet there is something appealingly old-fashioned about its handmade approach and watching the cast put it all together with deceptive ease.
And bless its savvy heart, it’s family-friendly seasonal fare that’s easily accessible to middle-schoolers and smart enough for parents — tough yet warm, with a rewarding Dickensian sweep.
by Paula Vogel. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Associate choreographer, Paloma McGregor; sound design, Stowe Nelson. With Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Kati Brazda, Tyrone Davis Jr., Jeffry Denman, Andrea Goss, Matthew Greer, Mackenzie Kristine Jarrett, Sekou Laidlow, Tracey Conyer Lee, Nicole Lewis and A.J. Shively. About two hours. Through Dec. 22 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Tickets $19-$64. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.